Showing posts sorted by relevance for query unsustainable. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query unsustainable. Sort by date Show all posts

22 September 2009

Unsound financial management, the stunning Oram admission

In Budget 2009, we invested $2.6 billion in health and community services.  This is no doubt a significant amount.  This represents a billion dollar increase in the past five years.  While we would like to do everything and meet every demand, that investment is simply unsustainable.

Paul Oram, Minister of Health and Community Services, September 21, 2009 [video file]

Note the date.

Health minister Paul Oram admitted today that the provincial government’s financial management since 2003 has produced a level of government spending that is - in his words -  “unsustainable.”

That is not just Paul Oram’s word.

His remarks were approved at the highest level.

That word  - unsustainable - is the word that the Premier’s Office chose to describe the financial state of the provincial government.

Until now, the Williams administration has prided itself on exactly the opposite. This is a remarkable admission for the Williams administration, an administration that has prided itself on what it claimed was sound management of the public treasury.

Regular readers of Bond Papers have known it for some time.

The earliest use of the word “unsustainable” in connection with provincial government spending was 2006:

What no one knew was that oil would hit US$70 a barrel and the cash would be pouring in at a rate no one in the province had ever seen before. That allowed Danny Williams to avoid making a whole bunch of good decisions and to crank up spending to unprecedented and, and in light of the economic slowdowns, likely unsustainable, heights.

The word turned up again a few months later in a quick look at the 2007 budget:

The current and forecast spending increases are based on optimistic projections for the price of oil in the medium term. Any downward trend in commodity prices (oil, minerals etc) will quickly make the consistent spending increases since 2003 unsustainable. Fiscal reality in those circumstances - taking less money in than is flowing out - would require program cuts, job losses and/or tax increases to correct.

Take a second and go read that post.  You’ll find the “unsustainable” again:

That level of per capita spending [second only to Alberta] is unsustainable in the long run. As a recent Atlantic Institute for Market Studies assessment concluded:

“If the province fails to reign in its whopping per capita government spending (about $8800/person [in FY 2006]) and super-size me civil service (96 provincial government employees /1000 people) it will quickly erode any gains from increased energy revenues.”

That is exactly the situation Paul Oram described today.

Look through Bond Papers and you will see repeated warnings about the unsustainable growth in government spending since 2004/05. 

This is not an exercise in “I-told-you-so”;  let’s clear that out of the way at the start.

This is about something much more significant.

Point One:  The issues are not new and the implications of the issues aren’t new.

Go back further than 2006.

Go back to the early to mid 1990s and you will see forecasts that showed the demographics in the province for the time period we are currently in and that mapped out the implications for health care costs.  Some of those same ideas turned up here in several posts throughout 2007 and 2008 that discussed the very serious financial state facing the provincial government.

Point Two:  Fail to plan;  plan to fail.

The current situation is a direct result of a series of short-term decisions made by the current administration since 2003.  The short-term spending decisions took place in every aspect of spending;  health care just happens to be the one place in the budget where the demand for more spending is greatest and where the implications of spending are also proportionately great..

How do we know the decisions have been made on an ad hoc basis?

Well, the indicators are littered throughout the correspondence released today by the provincial government.

For starters, just look at the dates on the e-mails to the regions.  The provincial government only settled on its spending allocations in late February and even then, the decisions were preliminary.  

Since 2003, the budget process has slipped further and further back in time such that crucial decisions – like gross spending – are not made until a few weeks before the end of the fiscal year. The reality of these letters suggests that budget decisions were not made until well into the current fiscal year. 

Throughout the 1990s and into the early part of this century,  the big picture spending decisions were made before Christmas.  By the time late February rolled around, the individual line items had been settled such that there was very little to decide.  In those days, the only adjustments that came after February would be cuts based on any changes to federal spending.

But in a provincial government where cash hasn’t been an issue, there is really no reason why the annual budget process should be so far out of whack that major budget decisions are still not settled four weeks before the end of the fiscal year.

Secondly, notice that the direction from the department to the regions is simply to freeze spending at 2008 levels.  That’s a short-term decision if ever there was one, not the sign of a decision taken within the context of a longer-term plan.

Thirdly, take a look at the list of options offered up by the boards.  In Central, there is a wide and unconnected list.  On  the one hand there are major program shifts.  On the other, there is an inconsequential cancellation of a single position for a few thousand dollars.  In Western, the increased costs forecast include substantial amounts that have to be annualised.  That is, the initial amounts increase over time as with any program spending. 

None of this is a sign of planning either at the regional or provincial level.  Rather it suggests a series of ad hoc decisions being made in response to ad hoc direction from central authorities.  As can be seen particularly in the letter from Western region and Labrador-Grenfell, significant new projects were started in 2007 and 2008 which need to be continued.  Yet, in preparing for 2009, the long-term implications of these projects are called into question by a predicted downturn in the economy.

In truth, this inconsistent management situation matches up with what we have seen from the provincial government across the board.  Capital works projects take inordinately long times to get start.  Significant legislative measures get lost for upwards of two years and more before they are implemented.   All the delays cost money. 

Point Three:  The solution cannot be more of the same.

One of the most obvious implications of analysis done for the Strategic Social Plan approved by cabinet in December 1995 was that government needed to fundamentally change how it delivered some services if it was going to balance the demand with the ability to supply.

Unfortunately, one of the first acts of the Tobin administration in 1996 was to scrap the SSP and replace it with a pale imitation. Gone were the needed reforms.  What has occurred since 2003 has been a continuation of the situation post-1996, with predictable results.  Until now, the Williams administration has steadfastly refused to acknowledge it faced a very serious problem.

But acknowledging that a problem exists is the first step to setting things right.

With all that as the basis, the next few posts will lay out some ideas for producing fundamental changes aimed at providing a financially sound future for the province.


21 December 2011

Unsound financial management – the Dunderdale acknowledgement #nlpoli

It’s not hard to find the toad of truth in the swamp otherwise known as the ruling Conservatives’ record on public spending since they took office in 2003.

You can find it because since 2009 they like to admit every now and then that their spending habits are “unsustainable."

As nottawa reminds everyone, Premier Kathy Dunderdale has now acknowledged that:
“[o]ur spending at the rate that we've been doing over the last eight years — and it has been very necessary for a number of very good reasons to do that — is not sustainable in the long run.” [CBC online story]
But when Mark claims that “[u]p to now, Tories (and others) have disagreed with that assessment” he is not exactly right.

In 2009, Paul Oram was the first Tory cabinet minister to acknowledge publicly that “unsustainable” thing.

As your humble e-scribbler noted at the time, those words must have received the blessing of the Premier’s Office since cabinet ministers under Danny Williams couldn’t break wind without permission from Hisself’s posse.

Fnance minister Tom Marshall.chimed in with an unsustainability admission.*

And then they just kept up the same old habits.

It’s not surprising therefore that the public sector unions just won’t react to Kathy Dunderdale’s comments that the unions must not expect big wage increases in the upcoming round of negotiations.  Local CBC has been pounding away for a couple of days trying to make a story out of this but so far they’ve come up with zip.

The unions know the sad Tory record of saying one thing and doing another.  They also know that the Tories are still in a pre-leadership phase.  Danny’s gone.  Kathy’s a fill-in. 

If they thought about it for a moment, they’d also know that the local economic boom the Tories like to praise themselves for is actually a function of public sector spending.

That’s right.

It isn’t oil.

It’s a massive increase in the number of public servants since 2003,  fantastic wage increases, and unprecedented increases in  public spending. Roads and buildings are just part of it.

That unsustainable public spending is what has been sustaining the provincial economy. Under the Tories, the provincial economy is considerably more fragile than it’s ever been before

Any effort by the Tories to get their spending under control – to get it to sustainable levels - will put a chill through the place.  That will inevitably lead to a chill in the local economy.  The chill won’t just hit St. John’s where most of the public servants and the construction industry lives.  The chill will be felt everywhere and that will put a chill on the Tories’ political standing.

All that is the answer to Doug Letto’s questions in his essay on the “massive obstacles” Kathy Dunderdale is facing:
Can she and the government say no? Consistently?

And no.

And everyone knows it, including Kathy.

Muskrat Falls, incidentally, is nothing more than the best example of a party addicted to unsustainable public spending.  The project will increase the public debt to new record levels but that is irrelevant to the province’s Tories.  They want all those jobs to keep the economy humming.

You can easily find the toad of fiscal truth in the swamp of Tory financial mismanagement since 2003. The truth is – as Kathy admitted herself – their spending is unsustainable.

The part Kathy didn’t say is that she won’t be able to do anything but keep it up.

- srbp -

* Changed wording to clear up sentence meaning in the context of the post.  Original post had wording left over from earlier draft.

13 March 2013

The Arse that Laid the Golden Turd #nlpoli

The provincial cabinet has been burning the midnight oil the past couple of nights. 


Late night sessions that ended God-knows-when, night after night.

Apparently, they are trying to figure out what to do in order to get out of the massive financial and political hole they have dug for themselves over the past decade.

As bizarre as that might seem to some people,  the politicians who created the mess have no idea yet what they are going to do.  All that Premier Kathy Dunderdale and finance minister Jerome Kennedy have been able to offer lately are lots of vague comments about when the budget might be or how many lay-offs there might be. Dunderdale put a number of 500 lay-offs out there a few days ago but frankly, that’s about as reliable as her forecasts from last year. 

And when Jerome told David Cochrane that they were still working out the Sustainability Plan, he was not bullshitting.  He meant it, even though he claimed they had already started implementing the plan last year.

If you are familiar with government budgets and how these things normally get sorted, then odds are you are reading this now that someone has been able to revive your unconscious form.  

04 February 2011

Finance minister cops to unsustainable spending

The provincial government hasn’t really been managing the public purse in a sustainable and fiscally responsible way.

Your humble e-scribbler has been saying that since 2006.  There have been plenty of charts and graphs to drive the point home.

In 2009, Paul Oram said that government spending is unsustainable, but unfortunately he said it on the way out the door as he left politics. 

But you don’t have to just accept that just because you read it here.

Now you know that government spending is unsustainable because no less an authority than Tom Marshall – the province’s finance minister – is saying that in every single one of his pre-budget consultations.

Take a look at the slide deck for his presentation.  You’ve seen similar slides here and in some of the conventional media maybe.  You’ll find the information is a wee bit familiar and that’s because the figures your humble e-scribbler uses and the ones Tom is using come from the same place:  the provincial finance department.

But Tom’s slides are better because they are accurate and up-to-date. Now Tom doesn’t give you all the information you’d but what is there is enough to scare the bee-jeebers out of any doubters out there.

Before we get into the details, let’s just say that True Tory Believers should turn away and go play Free Cell or something.  They really should not read on.  Fan Clubbers should really not read beyond this point.  They are putting their heads in jeopardy.  Their whole world only keeps making sense because they have convinced themselves that nothing at BP is real, that it is all wrong and just some sort of partisan plot. 

So if they keep reading to the end, your humble e-scribbler cannot be held liable for the resulting carnage as their skulls collapse.  After all, if your faithful servant says these things only because he is a Liberal and then Tom Marshall says the same things then either Tom is telling whoppers or I am a Tory or…

You can see how easily they could wind up in the Waterford trying to make those two things fit into the same twisted mental space.

Anyway, here goes.


This slide from near the end of Marshall’s presentation shows the net program expenses – everything except debt servicing and capital costs – compared with the consumer price index and the growth in the economy. This is a really good comparison because it shows the changes in the core government spending without things like the “stimulus” capital spending.

This is the sort of spending that would be very hard to cut if revenue dropped drastically.  And you can really see the point if you recall that so much of the economy – 30% or so of the labour force – is paid out of net program expenses. This is your health care spending as well.

Now just because Tom Marshall used it, let’s look at the slide showing the comparison between the growth in gross health care spending – with capital works tossed in – and the consumer price index.  This slide together with the one above illustrates the astronomic growth in spending over the past four years.



This slide also shows you a comparison which pretty much destroys any argument that the rate of gro9wth was the only thing Tom and his friends could have done.  You’ve heard all the excuses about catch-up and making up for previous neglect or that costs are just going up because things are booming.

Don’t look at 2009-2010 because that’s the recession year when the costs of goods and services didn’t grow very much at all.  Look at the two years before that.  The provincial government could have boosted spending by double the rate of inflation and they still would have boosted spending by a huge amount.  Instead, they went for triple or more.  in 2007, the year of the last election, they boosted spending by what looks like six or seven times the rate of inflation.

And all that spending was built on what Tom Marshall acknowledges are windfalls from the price of oil.  They are windfalls driven by price and by production of a non-renewable resource.  All wonderful to spend and spend more as long as the cash is rolling in.  But when the prices don’t keep skyrocketing and the money isn;t flowing in, you have a hard time driving spending up at the rate people want.

That’s the definition of unsustainable spending.

Not surprisingly, you can see all the problems in the final slide Marshall used in which he laid out his “challenges”.


That second bullet, the one about high dependence on resource revenues is the bit about price and production.  Great going up but prices do go down.

Skip down a bit and you’ll see the other point:  there’s pressure to continue spending increases and people are used to seeing growth of nine percent on average over the past seven years.  Inflation averaged around two percent each year or thereabouts over the same period.

All the stuff that comes before this points to that bullet about the “Need to control expenditure growth”.  Problem is that expectations are there for continued growth and those expectations are on top of the real need that comes from having an aging population and that is on top of the commitments to boost public spending on megaprojects like “equity” stakes. 

If that weren’t bad enough the combination of election year plus the unsettled Conservative leadership combine to make it very difficult for politicians to make the tough choices and actually control spending.

Remember 2007?

If you’ve forgotten already, scroll back up and look.

A very popular leader with a reputation for toughness and they still couldn’t spend in a responsible, prudent manner.

And if all that weren’t enough to make you cringe, take a look at that last point.  There you have the provincial government’s great plan to reduce public debt:  they will pay it off as it comes due.  That means about $200 to $300 million a year.

Divide that into the $12 billion gross debt and you can figure out how many decades will take  - theoretically - to get to zero at that rate.  Yeah don’t bother.  Let’s just sum it up by saying the current administration does not have a debt reduction plan at all.  Not really.  They don’t.  If things get really bad, they can just roll debt over and that’s what governments have done over the past couple of decades. They could pay off some debt as it came due;  otherwise they just spent as they needed and ran up the debt bill.

We aren’t done yet, though.

That middle bullet about a “requirement” to borrow to pay for the Lower Churchill.

It is only a requirement because the provincial government already made the decision to add another $4.0 to $6.0 billion to the public debt.  They don’t absolutely have to do it and, frankly, the deal as laid out currently is one that doesn’t make any sense.  It would be a huge risk for any government or private sector company that had a healthy balance sheet.  Even with a federal loan guarantee, it is sheer foolishness for the province with the biggest per capita debt load in the country.

Upside:  admitting there’s a problem could mean that Tom Marshall and his colleagues will start sorting out the mess they’ve made.

Downside:  Tom’s admitted to some or all of this in the past in the pre-budget consultations only to bring down a budget each time that did exactly the opposite of what was needed to fix the problems. Only Danny’s gone:  the rest of the people responsible for seven years of unsustainable public spending and unsound management of the public purse are still in charge.

We can hope for the best but experience tells us all to expect the worst.

- srbp -

16 January 2014

The Vibrant Unsustainable Super Energy Debt Warehouse #nlpoli

The Conservatives used to say that Newfoundland and Labrador was eastern North America’s energy warehouse.  Once Danny Williams ran for the hills and left Kathy Dunderdale in charge, she kicked everything up a notch.

Energy warehouse was too plain for Kathy, whose party ran on the slogan “New Energy” in the 2011 general election.

With Kathy running the place, it became a super warehouse.  “We are an energy super warehouse,” said Kathy countless times. 

The New Energy Party even clipped this bit of Kathy from the House of Assembly for its website back in 2011:

Mr. Speaker, this Province is an energy super warehouse. We have what the world wants. We will bring it to market. We will supply our own people, Mr. Speaker, and we will earn from those resources for generations to come.

“We will supply our own people, Mr. Speaker.”

15 November 2011

Free advice #nlpoli

Free advice, they say, is worth exactly what you paid for it.

And when it comes to free advice on the provincial Liberal Party leadership, Dean MacDonald is more full of it than usual.  CBC’s David Cochrane gave MacDonald free airtime this past weekend to share his insights into what the party needs to do.

Cochrane describes MacDonald as having “long Liberal ties” but that really isn’t an accurate description of MacDonald’s limited association with the Liberal Party.  Sure the guy spent some time as Brian Tobin’s bagman for Tobin’s abortive federal leadership run.  But other than that and raising some cash recently, MacDonald’s most significant act while associated with the Liberal Party was blading Roger Grimes as MacDonald’s old business buddy  - Danny Williams – strode toward the Premier’s Office.

And that, dear reader, is the extent of MacDonald’s association with provincial Liberals.  If that’s all that it takes to have not only ties, but long ones by some estimations, then perhaps that speaks more to the sorry state of the provincial Liberal Party at this point in history than anything else.

The guy, after all, hasn’t held any positions within the party, has an incredibly limited record of his own of making financial contributions to the provincial Liberals and, as far as it appears has absolutely no political experience whatsoever.

MacDonald acknowledges this point, by the way, when he talks about the need for establishing some street cred within the party. 

And aside from suggesting he could “help out” by fundraising or doing some other odd jobs, MacDonald doesn’t offer much else. 

What he does do is spout a phenomenal load of pure shit throughout the entire interview.  One of the choice moments is when Cochrane asks MacDonald about Dean’s criticism about Kathy Dunderdale’s “unsustainable” spending.  MacDonald quickly disavows any suggestion he was criticising the Conservatives. 

When Cochrane notes – quite rightly  - that Danny is the guy who started the unsustainable spending, MacDonald launches into an extensive Conservative apologia for Danny Williams’ unsustainable public spending.  It’s vintage Williams bullshit from a charter member of the Fan Club.

Beyond that, Dean doesn’t have anything to offer on the Liberal Party beyond the need to “rebuild”, bring in "new people and fresh blood.

And that’s it.

To describe this as amateur and superficial would be generous.  His own experience in fundraising is, by his own characterization, nothing beyond “arm-twisting” and organizing big dinners with high profile speakers.

On Muskrat Falls, MacDonald doesn’t do much better.  he exaggerates his own involvement with the provincial government’s hydro corporation.  His observations about the project and the issues involved are best described – again to be very generous – as superficial.  MacDonald does not even have substantive talking points on the subject. The best he can do to try and counter David Vardy’s critique is suggest Vardy is recycled from the 1970s. 

And that – you can see where this is going - is all there was.

If you want to talk about Liberal leadership politics, you’d be far better off looking at the federal party.  There, at least, you can find people with ideas and energy.  You can find people who have done a few things, taken a few for the team they were actually on, and who remain ready to do more.

The federal Liberals are talking about having a wide-open leadership race that lasts several months and involves a series of votes.  Some are likening it to the American primaries.  As the Toronto Star reported:

“This is not tinkering at the edges. This fundamentally changes how power in a political organization is exercised,” Liberal party president Alfred Apps told reporters on Thursday as the revival plan was released.

Some of the problems the federal Liberals have experienced are mirrored at the provincial Liberals:

    • An “out-of-date” party structure, with “an approach to campaigning from a bygone era.”
    • An “aging establishment elite” holding too much power at the party centre.

For the provincial crowd, you can add a third one:  a tendency to accept players from another team into their midst.  Some of them even wind up being touted as potential leadership material spouting tons of free advice.

- srbp -

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 -

20 April 2011

The unsustainable lightness of Tom Marshall

Tom Marshall keeps a tight grip on the provincial government’s purse strings.

He has to do that.

The damn things won’t stay that wide open on their own.

In presenting the provincial government’s budget to the House of Assembly on Tuesday, Marshall announced that the Conservative administration of Kathy Dunderdale would continue the practice of unsustainable public spending set under Dunderdale’s predecessor, Danny Williams.

Overall government spending will grow by 4.9%;  that’s about twice the rate of inflation. 

A windfall in oil prices directly attributable to turmoil in the Middle East helped to erase a forecast cash deficit of $959 million and turn it into a modest cash surplus of $133 million. (Estimates 2011 p. iv)

For the past two years, Marshall claimed the government’s profligate spending came from the need to spend cash to fuel an economic recovery

Now he’s got a different excuse:  we can afford it.  Marshall told reporters that the provincial economy was “sizzling”. That’s nonsense, of course.  The economy is actually becoming increasingly fragile and public spending is sustained by cash coming from a volatile source, namely oil. Marshall seems to know that just like he knows the public debt is something he should be reducing.

Oddly, Marshall never seems to do anything about it

Marshall forecast that the province’s net debt will increase in 2011, largely the result of continued growth in unfunded pension and benefits liabilities in the public service.

And that’s despite repeated warnings from the province’s auditor general among others.  In 2009 a provincial cabinet minister resigned unexpectedly citing concerns about unsustainable public spending.  Earlier this year, Auditor General John Noseworthy repeated the same concerns;  interestingly enough he did it in a report on Fiscal Year 2009, the same year Paul Oram left cabinet.

Two years later, the provincial government is still on the same path.

- srbp -


05 April 2013

Political Will and Public Policy #nlpoli

The SIDI simulation of government spending that we’ve run this past week might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but these sort of thought exercises are always useful.

The most striking thing is the amount of money from oil and mining that the provincial government has spent in the past seven years:  $15.6 billion.  That’s enough to wipe out the entire public debt plus the unfunded pension liability and have a couple of billion left over for an unprecedented capital works program. 

It’s a staggering amount of money and the only thing more amazing than how much money there was is how easy it was to do something far more productive than just spending all the money, as the current provincial government has done.

The SIDI simulation included:

  • a steady, sustainable increase in spending each year,
  • an unprecedented, sustainable capital works program,
  • a $3.675 billion real decrease in public debt,
  • the prospect of a complete elimination of public debt within a decade, and,
  • an income fund that would continue to grow with further oil money and generate new income for the provincial government for as long as the fund existed.

The only thing needed to make the simulation a reality was a political desire to do it.  Had the provincial government done any one of the elements of the SIDI approach, then the provincial government could have either avoided the current crisis altogether or significantly altered the profile of the crisis and the prospects for coping with it.

08 March 2013

Body Count #nlpoli

“We've now confirmed 98 layoffs across government today,” tweeted CBC provincial affairs reporter David Cochrane on Thursday afternoon.  “Working on departmental breakdown…” 

Cochrane broadcast the casualty figures for each department later:
Breakdown by department: 10 Advanced education/skills. 6 CYFS. 13 Environment. 4 Finance. 6 Fisheries. 23 Health. …7 Exec Council. 2 IBRT. 10 Justice. 9 Natural Res. 2 Tourism. 6 Transportation. 62 of 98 jobs cut were union jobs.
That’s the way it has been for the province’s political reporters since the end of February. Cochrane, NTV’s Mike Connors, and the Telegram’s James McLeod tweet on how many layoffs happened on that day, the number in each department,  how many belonged to which union and how many were non-unionised.

30 July 2012

The Art of Budget Forecasting #nlpoli

The provincial government set its budget this year based on an oil price forecast of US$124 a barrel in 2012.

As we move up on the midway point in the fiscal year (it starts on April 1), oil is well below that.  The result is that the provincial government could wind up with a deficit of nearly three quarters of a billion dollars, according to the Premier.

Some people are amazed by this.

They shouldn’t be.

This fits a pattern.

06 December 2009

When Worlds Collide

There is one Steve who is dear, oh so dear to the Premier’s heart.

We speak, dear friends of Danny Williams former law partner – Steve Marshall – who apparently came out of his self-imposed Internet retirement this week to leave a comment on a column by Telegram editor Brian Jones.

Now others have taken a few smacks at Steve as you can see from the stuff after his little rant, but for this post let’s look at his words from another angle or two.

For starters, there is nothing in Brian Jone’s column that should leave Steve evidently so overwrought that one would suspect a youtube video cannot be far behind.

Besides, if the wind beneath Steve’s wings is really enjoying the “the highest of approval ratings from us out here in that real world”, Steve should hardly be so distraught he must not only pen a comment criticising a Telegram editor for a column but also drag in another fellow who wasn’t mentioned in the column, and who does nothing more exciting than clack out a few words on a small corner of the Internet.

No, he wouldn’t.

So what gives?

Simply put, Steve is like Tony the Tory.

He is a barometer, if you will, of the mood in certain circles.

The mood is evidently quite black.

You can tell it is black not only because Steve is haunting the comments sections again but also because Steve uses all the classic Fan Club arguments – hugely popular, tireless toiler for the peons like us blah blah blah – and the usual direct personal attack using equally shop worn invective against those who are, in Steve’s World anyway, defilers of the Kingdom.

Yes friends, those of us who dare to speak our minds do not live in what Steve considers the real world.

Yet consider this: for the past three years or so, your humble e-scribbler has faithfully and regularly warned that provincial government spending was unsustainable.

What with the known pressures on spending for health care that are already here and will grow, with the changes in the work force and all the rest, it would be folly to raise government spending to incredible heights in such short period based solely on highly unpredictable oil prices and without doing something significant to pay off debt. That is a opposed to masking it with an assets and liabilities statement about the “net debt”.

That’s what has been one of the major themes here in what Steve would regard presumably as the unreal world.

These are views that Steve would likely characterise as being “negative, pessimistic, constant, repetitive and downright boorish”.

And incidentally, your humble e-scribbler was not alone in his wicked contentions. The Auditor General said the same thing, in slightly different words. According to finance minister Tom Marshall, even one of the province’s bond raters even asked about sustainability.

How odd then that in the past few weeks, the Object of Steve’s Affection and his key ministers have acknowledged that provincial government spending is …wait for it… “unsustainable”.

This is what happens when unreal world lawyer/businessman Steve lives in meets head-long the world the rest of us toil in to earn our crusts of bread.

You get that sort of jarring disconnection in which Steve leaps to the defence of someone who – by his own account – would [not] need any defence whatsoever from the peanut gallery.

Then you hit that arresting moment when he winds up attacking with such vicious personal slurs the very person he supposedly defends.

2012-movie-431x300And above all else, you see not so much what Steve wants you to see, but really a hint that maybe some great upheaval is about to take place; okay, well at least that some people are shit-baked their world is about to come to a crashing end.

29 September 2009

“Unsustainable” public spending: the fin min version

Former finance minister Tom Marshall said on Tuesday that he was once asked by an analysis for Moody’s bond rating service if he felt the growth in public sector spending was sustainable.  Marshall didn’t reveal his answer. 

The subject came up in a discussion with talk show host Randy Simms on VOCM.  Marshall noted that the province spends more per person than any other province in Canada. 

Simms suggested that high rate of spending was because of the geographical dispersion of the population.  He didn’t mention that costs in Newfoundland and Labrador are typically lower for many things, including wages.

At that point, Marshall noted that people not from here often don’t understand the issues and then mentioned in passing the comment from Moody’s.  He also referred to boosting spending based on oil revenues only to be faced with a problem when oil prices drop dramatically.

That matches recent comments by health minister Paul Oram that the provincial government’s spending levels were “unsustainable.” 

It doesn’t match claims by Marshall and other cabinet ministers up to now that the current administration was practicing sound financial management.


03 April 2013

Responsible Public Spending #nlpoli

You don’t need drugs or alcohol to get the feeling of dizziness or stupor like you smacked your head with a hammer. Hard. Repeatedly.

Just listen to a representative of one of the special interest groups talking about the provincial budget and public spending. It doesn’t matter which one.  As your humble e-scribbler was finishing off this post on Tuesday, a representative of the appropriately named St. John’s BOT was on television talking about how government had to cut public sector jobs and tear into public sector pension benefits because of the hideous unfunded pension liability. 

Corporate lawyer Denis Mahoney even quoted the distorted, misleading government claim about the unfunded liability as a share of only a fraction of the public debt to bolster his position. He never mentioned the billions going to subsidize his members, of course. 

In the process, Mahoney looked about as convincing as the labour mouthpieces like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who said in 2004 that the government wasn’t spending too much.  It just didn’t have enough money.  Of course, they never mentioned that the government was outspending just about every other province on a per capita basis.

Listen to this sort of mindless crap long enough and you don’t have to wonder why people wander around in a daze.

To clear your head, take a look at a chart showing the actual government spending from 2005 to 2012 (in blue) compared to the income from sources other than oil and minerals (in red).

17 March 2010

Williams to continue unsustainable spending

In his first public statement since coming back to the province after heart surgery, Premier Danny Williams confirmed the provincial government will continue spending public money at a level his finance minister has described as unsustainable.

According to Williams, a balanced budget is no longer a target for his administration.

Williams said it was important to keep “momentum” going in the province. 

  1. We are in a pre-election - if not a pre-leadership -  period in which any sound fiscal management goes out the window.
  2. Williams correctly identifies provincial government spending as the source of economic activity on the northeast Avalon.  As BP readers know, oil hasn’t been driving things in the metro area, contrary to public belief.


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.


28 May 2012

The Premier and Open Line #nlpoli

Once upon a time,  premiers would spend time on radio talk shows every now and then taking calls from the punters.

Not so since 2003 and the New Approach.

Well, not so until Monday when Kathy Dunderdale spent two and a half hours with Randy Simms. regular readers of these e-scribbles were likely surprised at the number of times the Premier said exactly what SRBP's been saying for the past seven years on big topics like unsustainable public spending and the impact an aging population in the province will have on spending and the economy.  

As for the appearance, apparently, she thought it was just going to be a phone call.  Big difference.

Three take-aways:

  • The miscommunication about what she was doing could be a clue as to one of the problems the Premier and her staff are evidently having.  Among other things, she must have a light work day if she could look at her schedule and not notice the 2.5 hours blocked out for VOCM.
  • Something's up with Dunderdale's polling numbers.  The only time Danny ever changing his pattern was when his polls were off.
  • The past two premiers, the current finance minister, and another former cabinet minister agree with SRBP that the Tories' public spending has been and is unsustainable.  That should frig with a few Tory heads out there.
Bonus take-away:
  • Telling your political opponents to stop doing something is a guarantee they will keep doing it.  You really do have have to realise you are in a hole before you realise you need to stop digging.

16 November 2010

The Dismal Science: Debunking the “federal presence” fairy tale

Far from being hard done-by when it comes to federal jobs in the province, Newfoundland and Labrador is pretty much on par, according to a recent study conducted by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and reported by the National Post.

You can find a news release summarising the report here, while the full report is available in pdf format.

FCPP -equalization

Some provinces  - Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Manitoba – have significantly more than the national average number of federal jobs per 100,000 population.  Quebec, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Alberta have less.

Newfoundland and Labrador and Ontario are only slightly higher than the national average.

The study effectively refutes claims that this province is receiving something less than its “entitlement’ to federal pork spending.  The comparative figures also demolish two reports released by Memorial University’s Harris Centre in 2005 and 2006.  The provincial government has used those studies repeatedly to bolster its claims for increased federal transfers to the province to offset what turn out to be imaginary grievances.

The Frontier Centre study refers to these federal jobs as a form of “stealth” Equalization.  That is, they contend that the federal jobs serve as a type of federal transfer to the local economy in each of the provinces. More importantly, though, the Frontier Centre contends that the transfer comes in addition to the formal Equalization program and is particularly heavy in the provinces it refers to as “major” have-provinces.

The study also notes that the have-not provinces with the highest ratio of federal government jobs also tend to have higher than average reliance on provincial public sector jobs generally. They compare provinces based on the number of public sector employers as a share of the total population.  Newfoundland and Labrador is third highest on that scale, with Prince Edward Island and Manitoba coming, respectively, first and second.

Looking at the same information but as a share of the provincial labour force, Newfoundland and Labrador is by far the province with the largest dependence on the public sector.  Almost 30% of the provincial labour force is employed by the federal, provincial or municipal government.

The Frontier Centre study puts the findings into a particular context, namely transfer payment reform:

The stealth equalization of unbalanced federal employment described in this paper is part of a much bigger problem —an approach to public policy in Canada that transfers money out of high-productivity regions into low-productivity regions.

Not only is this policy approach harmful to our productivity growth, it is also, quite simply, unsustainable. Historically, the taxpayers in three provinces—British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, have paid most of the bill for high levels of public sector employment in the have-not provinces.

At the same time, the study does point to issues that are especially relevant to Newfoundland and Labrador, even if the report’s authors simply missed the poster child for their argument of unsustainable public spending and the dangers of reliance on what the author’s call “the state driven approach to economic development”.

Most residents of the recipient provinces are unaware of the extent to which their economies are state-driven and reliant on transfers. Beyond the official equalization money, massive amounts of revenue from elsewhere flow into these provinces from a number of different sources. Stealth equalization through federal employment is one important example—but there are others. Higher dependence on federal
government transfers to individuals and discrimination in ordinary  operating programs in favour of the have-nots are two more examples of ways Canadian public policy transfers wealth into the have-nots.

Most residents of Newfoundland and Labrador are unaware of the extent to which the provincial economy is state-driven and reliant on federal transfers in addition to overall public sector spending.

They aren’t alone, of course.  The current provincial administration operates as if going off Equalization was a tragedy of biblical proportions.

- srbp -


15 November 2010

The politics of energy subsidies

From the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies comes a timely rejoinder to the policy in Prince Edward Island of subsidising energy prices out of tax dollars. The arguments in this post refer to the New Democratic Party policy of taxing tax off home heating prices but the concept is the same. The piece is also a timely one for Newfoundland and Labrador where Lorraine Michael recently embraced the policy.  

The argument against the policy of cutting home heating taxes is simple:

It gave people with more than sufficient ability to pay a subsidy they did not need. It encouraged continued consumption at unsustainable levels and it helped the poor not by treating the problem (inefficient homes and too much consumption), but by treating the symptom (high electricity bills).

In Newfoundland and Labrador one suspects that political parties eager – or desperate – for votes in the coming year will lay this sort of policy on thickly to try and buy them up. 

The ruling Conservatives, despite their supposed reform-based Conservative philosophy, are already trying to sell a future deal on the Lower Churchill as a guarantee of stable prices. They don’t talk about the huge subsidies the thing may well involve or that the whole thing will add enormously to the public debt. Incidentally, the likely reason the Premier has stopped referring to loan guarantees as loan guarantees is that he is acutely aware that any Lower Churchill project as he has proposed it will – inevitably – demolish once and for all any claims about the current Conservative administration’s performance in controlling the public debt and deficit.

It’s all bollocks of course.  Energy prices in the province will stay stable anyways without the Lower Churchill.  NALCOR’s own energy demand forecasts don’t support any such megaproject to supply juice to the island portion of the province.  And with a bit of conservation and efficiency, what increased demand there is could go down.

That’s one of the reasons why this AIMS article is interesting:  it specifically points to conservation as an economically sound policy:

the need for some electricity does not undermine the basic math that it is still cheaper and more efficient and, long term, more sustainable to reduce consumption.

At the same time, providing subsidies to allow everyone, but especially low and fixed income Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, to improve the energy efficiency of their homes would treat the problem of high heating bills rather than the symptom.  At the same time, leaving the prices to reflect the cost of production would promote conservation and efficiency.  The whole idea is progressive socially in addition to being economically and ecologically sound.  It beggars the imagination to figure out why political parties would head down a road of subsidies they know is simply  unsustainable.

- srbp -

20 July 2010

Forever blowing bubbles

We are in a bubble. I think we are in a protected bubble.

That’s Danny Williams making a few observations at the close of the most recent session of the provincial legislature.

It’s not the first time Williams talked about bubbles.  He said the same thing in October 2008 as the world headed into the worst recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s:

We now, for the first time in our lives, are in a bit of a financial bubble and that's a wonderful thing. We have that protection and the people of this province got the support of the provincial government

Williams even claimed during that call to a radio open line show that “[h]opefully our [budget] surpluses will continue, hopefully they'll get even larger, it will enable us to do the things that we've been doing. I mean this, for us this hasn't happened overnight. We've been preparing for this.”

Then the talk of surpluses and bubbles disappeared. 

You see, bubbles are wonderful things,  all pretty and shimmery in the sunlight.

But bubbles are flimsy and insubstantial.

Bubbles have a distressing tendency to burst.

And in the case of the Williams economic bubble, the whole thing burst quite spectacularly.  The provincial gross domestic product dropped 22% in 2009, or 10.2% in real terms as RBC assessed it. Deficit spending became the new order not just for the day but for the years to come and cabinet ministers openly admitted provincial government spending was unsustainable.

Now for those reasons alone it was nothing short of bizarre to see Williams return to the complete nonsense that somehow the province – let alone the provincial government – had emerged from the recession safely wrapped in some sort of bubble. It was even more bizarre to see Williams repeating this line:

However, when I look at what is happening here in Newfoundland and Labrador, the fact that we do have our debt reduced,…

It’s bizarre because it simply isn’t true.  The total public sector liabilities remain as high in 2009 as they were at just about any point in the last five years.  Even the net debt – government’s favourite misleading measure – increased as the 2009 cash shortfall sucked up a half billion dollars of cash the government had laying about and which had previously been used to offset government’s liabilities, even if only paper.

Williams went even beyond those crazy remarks, claiming that the previously unfunded pension liabilities had been addressed.  Of course, that isn’t correct either.  As Budget 2010 forecasts, the unfunded pension liabilities will increase in the current fiscal year just as the net debt will increase.

So aside from a decidedly unhealthy dose of self-delusion, it’s pretty hard to tell what the Premier was getting on with in the House of assembly only a month or so ago.

The prospect of a second and prolonged recession  - widely discussed for some weeks now – only makes the premier’s claims that much harder to fathom. If the United States economy slows down again, then the Newfoundland and Labrador economy will follow suit.  Williams’ own economic policies have seen to that.

If economist George Athanassakos turns out to be right, things in Newfoundland and Labrador could be even worse:

Economies are still extremely vulnerable to speculative bubbles and dips and increased volatility. The panic of 2008 and the subsequent rescue packages did not provide the necessary catharsis that recessions bring to economies. Demand for broader reforms has also waned as a result of the rescue of the economy from the panic of 2008. If this were not enough, economies have become addicted to low interest rates and to liquidity infusions.

Rather than being protected by a bubble, Newfoundland and Labrador may be more vulnerable to a second economic downturn than other parts of the western world. First of all, more and more of the local economy under the Williams administration is based on unsustainable public sector spending.*  Second of all, the metro St. John’s area housing explosion  - even as it subsides – has been built on public sector spending coupled with low interest rate policies. A second recession will likely kill both of those simultaneously.

Incidentally, the most recent figures from Statistics Canada suggest that the construction boom in Newfoundland and Labrador isn’t a commercial one. 

non-residential chartInvestment in all categories of non-residential building construction peaked in mid to late 2008 and declined steadily in 2009 until it flattened for the past three quarters.  The pattern shows up in the total provincial number (the long red line on top) as well as in the St. John’s-only line (the blue long line with diamond shaped data points)

Even as spending on the Vale Long Harbour project, Hibernia South and Hebron ramp up in 2012, they won’t be able to offset a decline through all other sectors of the economy. And that’s even allowing that oil prices don’t drop thereby putting development of Hebron in some doubt.

The forest industry is a pale shadow of what it was even a half dozen years ago.  The fishery is mired in restructuring talks. In any event, the industry is woefully short of the capital investment needed to sustain itself let alone retool for global competition. Destroying Fishery Products International and selling off its most useful and lucrative assets will prove to be one of several catastrophic policy failures of the current administration.

Mining may be doing reasonably well in the year ahead, but a second global recession will also adversely affect commodity prices.  Even if oil prices remain at current levels, declining production over the next two to three years will reduce government revenues significantly.

Meanwhile, provincial government cash deficits in 2010 and again in 2011 would rapidly eat up whatever cash reserves are on hand. A significant economic downturn through the latter half of 2010 and into the 2011 election could force the government into a difficult financial position likely meaning spending cuts and wage freezes.

The province is not protected by a bubble.  It is subject to the same forces that affect the rest of the world. Far from insulating the provincial economy from global forces, government policy has left the province in a more precarious position than it has been in two decades.

That’s the thing about bubbles.  Like delusions, they have a tendency to burst in the most unsettling way imaginable.

- srbp -

* The growth in the provincial public service in recent years is not just a relative growth owing to a decline in other sectors, like forestry. From labradore:

In the past decade, the absolute numbers of people in NL who work in the provincial public sector — the provincial civil service, public health care, social service, and education system, and public post-secondary education institutions — has increased by 35%.  Not only is that the largest increase, start to finish, of any of the ten provinces, for most of the decade, NL has topped the chart in terms of the growth rate. And, starting in 2006, that growth curve spiked steeply upwards, with annualized growth of up to seven percent per year, unmatched by any other province except, starting in the second half of 2008, Prince Edward Island. [Emphasis added]