Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pre-budget primer: how pollies fudge the figures

When governments discover their self-imposed budget targets are harder to achieve than they expected, they face an almost irresistible temptation to cover the gap with a little creative accounting.

As we wait to see on Tuesday night the herculean efforts the Gillard government has made to keep its promise to achieve a budget surplus in 2012-13, let's review some of the tricks governments get up to when they find themselves in a tight fiscal corner.

We'll do so with help from an International Monetary Fund staff discussion note, Accounting Devices and Fiscal Illusions, written by Timothy Irwin.

"If history is a guide," Irwin says, "some of the efforts that should be dedicated to cutting spending or raising taxes may be diverted to the devices, that is, stratagems that reduce this year's reported deficit only by increasing subsequent deficits. As a result, fiscal adjustment may be partly an illusion."

That history is long. Irwin notes the term "fiscal illusion" was first used in 1897. He defines an "accounting device" as a manoeuvre that improves the headline fiscal indicator without actually improving public finances, or without improving it to the extent suggested by the headline indicator.

Irwin says fiscal illusions are a lot easier to produce when the budget balance is calculated on a "cash" basis rather than an "accrual" basis, though even the accrual basis isn't tamper-proof.

Under cash accounting, budget transactions are recorded at the time when cash is transferred; under accrual accounting, transactions are recorded at the time when economic value is transferred. Changing the timing of cash payments is relatively easy.

The private sector has used accrual accounting for eons but our governments switched from cash to accrual only in the late 1990s, at the behest of a new international convention for government financial statistics issued by the IMF.

State governments moved their budgets to an accrual basis, as required, and left it at that. The federal government moved to accrual in 1999, then had second thoughts and, while continuing to produce the bulk of its figures on an accrual basis, reverted to using the "underlying cash" budget balance as its headline fiscal indicator.

Treasury insists the cash balance is more meaningful as a measurement of the budget's effect on the macro economy but that's debatable. It wouldn't be lost on Treasury that cash accounting affords its political masters a lot more wriggle room.

Irwin says an accounting device aimed at the deficit reduces this year's deficit but increases future deficits by an amount that largely offsets the initial improvement.

"To do this, it must either increase reported revenue or decrease reported spending in the year (or years) of interest. And, in return, it either decreases reported revenue or increases reported spending in future years," he says.

This means accounting devices can be divided into four broad categories, the first of which is "hidden borrowing". This involves increasing reported revenue now but increasing reported spending later.

In Europe, governments have reduced their headline deficits by taking over the pension schemes of public enterprises. They receive a compensating payment for taking over the scheme, which they count as revenue, but the offsetting obligation to make future pension payments doesn't count as a liability.

In effect, they've borrowed money from the outfit selling the pension scheme but the debt doesn't appear in their books.

Another way of achieving the same effect is to sell government buildings, then lease them back. Ring a bell? The Howard government did this extensively in the late '90s. And it drove bad bargains with the lucky landlords on the other side of the sale-and-leaseback.

The second accounting device, "disinvestment", increases reported revenue now but reduces reported revenue in the future. The proceeds of privatisations are counted to reduce the deficit but, though these proceeds may reduce the government's debt and so reduce its interest bill, no account is taken of the future dividends the government will no longer receive.

In principle, the Howard government's introduction of the concept of the "underlying" cash balance brought an end to this disreputable accounting practice, much used by the Hawke-Keating government.

In practice, however, this applied only to the sale of financial assets (such as a whole enterprise), not to the sale of non-financial assets such as real estate (and hence, not to sale-and-leaseback deals).

The third accounting device, "deferred spending", reduces reported spending now but increases it later. In the US, the government once reduced its deficit by postponing a military pay day by a single day (shifting it from one year to the next) and, another time, by deferring Medicare payments that would have been made in the last week of the year.

"Less directly, governments sometimes defer maintenance of roads and other assets even though maintaining assets is ultimately cheaper than letting them deteriorate to the point at which they must be rebuilt," Irwin says.

Shifting payments between a bit before and a bit after June 30 is a favourite device of our federal governments, producing double the effect when people compare the new year's balance with the previous year's. Not quite so trickily, the Gillard government has been doing much "reprofiling" of its spending - bringing it forward or pushing it into the future in preparation for the promised return to surplus next financial year. But where spending is pushed back beyond the three years of the "forward estimates," it drops off the radar completely.

There are potentially legitimate reasons for governments to use "public-private partnerships" for the construction of things such as toll roads. "Yet often it is their illusory fiscal benefits that make them appealing," Irwin says. The construction costs and the consequent debt don't appear on the government's books, even though the government has assumed "debt-like obligations" for the future.

The fourth accounting device, "forgone investment", reduces reported spending now but reduces reported revenue later. You avoid building the infrastructure you should but this means you don't get the revenue you would have got from charging for the use of that infrastructure.

More seriously, inadequate public infrastructure may act as a drag on the economy's growth, thus causing general tax collections to grow more slowly than they would have.

This effect may be the dark side of Australia's apparent fiscal rectitude during Peter Costello's reign.

Yet another device is to have spending undertaken by a public entity that isn't counted as part of the budget for reporting purposes. Do the initials NBN mean anything to you?