Friday, 8 May 2009

Fiscal deficits: lessons from the world's second fastest growing economy

Let us be honest. Some of us, Spaniards who enjoy economic data, are rather jealous of Anglo-Saxon countries. The public authorities in the US and the UK show a degree of transparency when it comes to public finances that we can only marvel at.(*) For any reasonable forecast of what might happen to the public sector deficit and to public debt for the current year, let alone years further out, we do better to monitor the IMF and EU Commission press releases than anything that comes out of el Ministerio de Economía or el Banco de España, even if it has regained some degree of independence in recent months.

The chart below shows the standard public deficit and borrowing requirement forecasts released by Her Majesty’s Treasury two weeks ago. Of course they are scary, and it is widely acknowledged that they are hopelessly optimistic. But the point is that the British public can have an open debate on the basis of official government statistics and forecasts. In Spain we are made to choose between the view of external bodies or the vague Government pronouncements that invariably follow.

United Kingdom's fiscal deficits and borrowing requirements
Source: Her Majesty's Treasury, 2009

In any case, the US and the UK are heading towards public sector borrowing well in excess of 10% of GDP this year and similar rates a few years into the future. Spain’s deficits and borrowing requirements might be 2 percentage points below theirs, mostly as a result of our much better starting point (a surplus of 2% of GDP in 2007). The scary thing about all this is that we all become hostage to the bond markets, as this blog has argued from its inception four months ago. What happens if investors start requiring much higher yields from government bonds?

I have a real world example which might hold some lessons for us, whether American, British or Spanish. The source of the lessons is rather unusual: a small African country with a total GDP of no more than $5 billion, which I happen to know rather well. Malawi went through a fiscal crisis and recovered from it as has been well documented by my former colleague Alan Whitworth. What strikes me the most are the potential parallels between Malawi’s story during 2000-2009 and what might happen over here.

As the chart below shows Malawi run huge budget deficits for five consecutive years (2000-2004), with the domestic borrowing requirement being in excess of 20% of budgeted domestic public expenditure for the first four years. The results were dramatic. The stock of debt AND interest rates increased dramatically, so that in 2003/04 28% of all domestic expenditure was being used to finance interest payments.

How did Malawi get out of spiralling into an oblivion of debt and ruin? From 2004 the government committed itself to fiscal discipline with the advice and support of the IMF, balancing the books for the first time in their short democratic history. Five years later Malawi’s government spends less than 10% of its domestic expenditure on interest and the IMF expects it to grow at close to 7% in 2009 (the Economist’s forecasts earlier this year expected Malawi to be the second fastest growing economy in the world this year after Qatar!).

Malawi has a general election on 19 May. Despite its track record on the macro-economy, the President’s re-election is not assured. The important thing, however, is that whoever wins has seen the benefits of fiscal discipline and can be expected to remain committed to it.

Will our leaders in the US, the UK and Spain show us, the people that fund them, the path they intend to follow to balance the books in the medium term? None of them have done it thus far because they know that the process will be painful.

(*) An illustration of the extent of this transparency, which goes well beyond macroeconomic aggregates, is given by the outraged front-page headlines in virtually every newspaper about Gordon Brown’s domestic cleaning arrangements. Getting similar headlines in Spain, which does happen, is always the result of tough investigative journalism which is always disputed by the culprits leaving the public in a state of confusion.

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