Showing posts with label creative accounting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label creative accounting. Show all posts

Monday, April 8, 2019

Frydenberg's budget: if it looks too good to be true . . .

What a wonderful world we live in now our politicians have discovered the cure for opportunity cost. In his first budget, Josh Frydenberg is doing a Gladys: he wants us to believe “we can have it all”.

Over the next 10 years, he can give us: tax cuts worth $302 billion, new infrastructure worth $100 billion, sundry other goodies, and a budget that’s back in the black and stays there, so that the net debt falls to zero. Yeah? How?

But first, a flashback. Labor’s Wayne Swan ended up a laughing stock after he began his 2012 budget speech with the immortal words: “The four years of surpluses I announce tonight . . . this budget delivers a surplus this coming year, on time, as promised, and surpluses each year after that, strengthening over time.”

Here's what Frydenberg said seven years later: “Tonight, I am pleased to announce a budget surplus of $7.1 billion . . . In 2020-21, a surplus of $11 billion. In 2021-22, a surplus of $17.8 billion. In 2012-23, a surplus of $9.2 billion. A total of $45 billion of surpluses over the next four years.”

Oh dear. This year even the media knew not to fall into their usual trap of treating the government’s estimate of next year’s budget balance as an already accomplished fact. Actually, we won’t know the “actual” for another 18 months.

But, as usual, the media took little notice of the expected budget balance for the year just ending – a truth the Finance Department’s creative accountants have long exploited to improve the new year’s expected balance at the expense of the old year’s.

Some have questioned why Frydenberg didn’t try harder to turn the old year’s small deficit into a small surplus so that, should the Coalition lose the election, it would have avoided going into the history books as a government that was in power for six years without ever recording a surplus.

Short answer: it couldn’t afford to. Reading the budget papers’ fine print makes it clear the creative department had to put in much furniture shifting to come up with the predicted surplus of $7.1 billion – an amount Frydenberg has been able to assert is “substantial” rather than “wafer thin”.

Think about this: in the old year, government spending is expected to leap by 4.9 per cent in real terms, whereas in the new year it will grow by just 0.1 per cent real. Do you reckon that discontinuity happened by chance?

My colleague Shane Wright has noted the government’s decision to bring forward to the old year $1.3 billion in grants to local councils due to be made in the new year. He could have added that two new one-off cash grants, one to help recipients of residential aged care and another to help pensioners with their energy bills, with a total cost approaching $700 million, will be paid in the old year rather than the new.

The government’s been promising to have the budget “back in the black” by 2019-20 since Joe Hockey’s time. And for some years has been “reprofiling” the timing of payments and receipts to ensure this target is met.

Wright reminds us that a change in the timing of tobacco excise collections announced in last year’s budget will, purely by chance, yield a one-off boost of several billions in the new financial year.

Why are we so anxious to get the budget back in black? Because we want to start reducing the government’s debt. Trouble is, since Peter Costello’s day, successive treasurers have drawn our attention to the underlying cash deficit and away from the ironically named “headline” cash deficit.

That’s a problem because it’s actually the higher headline deficit that has to be funded by borrowing – or, if it’s in surplus, can be used to pay off debt. Guess what? The budget estimates that we’ll still be in headline deficit of $4.4 billion in the coming year, and won’t be in surplus until 2021-22.

The discrepancy is explained mainly by successive governments using an accounting loophole to exclude their spending on the NBN, the second Sydney airport, the inland railway and other projects from the underlying deficit.

Even so, Frydenberg assures us the government’s net debt will have been fully repaid by June 2030 – and he has a lovely graph that proves it. How is our path to a debtless Nirvana achieved?

By assuming that government spending grows with almost unprecedented slowness despite the ageing of the population, that the economy grows strongly for another 10 years without missing a beat and with productivity improving each year at a rate faster than we’ve achieved in decades, and – get this – that the government’s financial assets will grow by almost 3 percentage points to 12.8 per cent of gross domestic product.

When it comes to creativity, Australia’s politicians are second to none.
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Monday, May 14, 2018

How we arrived at budgets we can't trust

After last week’s appalling effort, the resort to misleading practices in the budget is reaching the point where the public’s disrespect and distrust of politicians are spreading to the formerly authoritative budget papers.

We’re used to spin doctors with slippery words. Now it’s spin doctors with slippery numbers. They’re not just gilding the lily, they’re creating an unreal world where the truth is concealed.

It gives me no joy to be telling people not to believe what they read in the budget papers. I’d rather tell them that of course the budget figures can be trusted, and they should heed the advice of the nation’s most senior and respected economists.

I have great respect for most of our econocrats who, at base, care about our economic success, try hard to make their estimates realistic and are at pains to avoid saying things that could mislead.

The problem is that a politicised and demoralised public service is under continuous pressure to help their political masters mislead the public.

The truth about this budget is that a government that’s had surprisingly little success in reducing the budget deficit and halting the growth in its debt decided to ignore its solemn commitments to “bank” any improvement in its position and to achieve a surplus of 1 per cent of gross domestic product “as soon as possible”. Rather, it would have a big tax cut, largely for political reasons.

This should have led to a noticeable delay in the timing of the return to surplus and delay before the debt started going down rather than up.

Instead, we were presented with a budget purporting to show a faster return to surplus despite the tax cut. We could have our cake and eat it.

How was this miracle performed? By an unexpected actual surge in tax collections that was probably a one-off, but was taken to presage a continuing improvement.

Plus overly optimistic forecasts of economic growth, combined with the magic of medium-term projections assuming continuous strong economic growth out to 2028-29.

In the former Labor government’s last budget, of 2013, Wayne Swan introduced two hugely expensive “legacy” programs: the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski needs-based school funding.

Swan made the schemes seem affordable by phasing them in exceptionally slowly, with the bulk of the cost crowded into the two years immediately following the four years of the “forward estimates”, where they couldn’t be seen.

Even so, he provided “medium-term projections” out 10 years to 2023-24, which showed the budget deficit projected to return to balance in 2015-16, before soaring to a surplus way over 1 per cent of GDP just three years later. Net debt would peak at 11.4 per cent of GDP in 2014-15, then fall to zero in seven years.

The two graphs showing the budget balance soaring up to surplus and the net debt gliding down to zero are truly inspiring and worth looking up (page 3-32).

To Swan, these projections were proof positive that his expensive new spending programs were “fully funded”.

After Labor’d been thrown out, a senior econocrat reproached me for failing to detect that these fabulous projections relied for their magnificence on a “magic asterisk”. Huh? An assumption that real growth in spending would be held to 2 per cent a year, on average.

Swan claimed in successive budgets to be achieving the 2 per cent cap. He never did, in any year. But the “on average” allowed him to claim advanced credit for good intentions in future years.

This year’s is the Wayne Swan Memorial budget. It uses just the same tricks to create just the same illusions.

You promise tax cuts worth $140 billion over 10 years, but with only 10 per cent of that cost hitting the budget in the first four years of forward estimates, and the remaining 90 per cent hidden by a projection methodology that assumes smooth sailing and Scott Morrison’s claim to be able to achieve unprecedented restraint in spending.

Swan was a master of “reprofiling” – shifting receipts and payments around to keep the budget balance looking like it’s heading in the right direction and disguise the trouble you’re having paying for promises you can’t afford.

This budget’s full of reprofiling, including a one-off draw-forward of tobacco excise timed to help in a tough year and the temporary disinterment of the low-income tax offset so the tax cut can start seven weeks after budget night but not hit the budget until the following financial year.

But the more treasurers use the budget papers to mislead us, the more they foul their own nest, demeaning their great office, discrediting the documents they produce with such flourish, and disheartening the econocrats who used to be proud to work for Treasury.
Read more >>

Monday, May 7, 2018

Whatever Tuesday’s budget holds, it’s sure to be fudged

It’s a sad truth that treasurers and finance ministers almost never avoid using creative accounting to make their budgets look better – or less worse – than they really are. But this fudging often costs taxpayers a lot more.

Governments of both colours, federal and state, have been doing this forever, after the bureaucrats show them how. It’s one of the less honourable services public servants provide their honourable masters.

The move from cash accounting to accrual accounting at the turn of the century should have made fudging harder, but federal Treasury solved that problem by sticking to cash while Finance moved to accrual.

Focusing public attention on the cash budget balance has kept alive the oldest and simplest form of fudge. You can make the new year’s budget deficit look smaller than it really is by taking a payment due sometime in the new year and paying it in the last days of the old year.

Pre-paying a bill of $1 billion in this way makes the comparison between years look $2 billion better than reality.

But such tricks are chicken feed. The most wasteful one is the way state governments have tried to retain their AAA credit ratings by using “public-private partnerships” to conceal the extent of their borrowing for infrastructure.

No one can borrow more cheaply that government, but paying a private developer a premium to do the borrowing at a higher interest rate ensures the government-initiated debt appears on the developer’s balance sheet, not the government’s.

The state “asset recycling programs” promoted and subsidised by the Abbott-Turnbull government are also a product of the states’ worries about their credit ratings. You sell off existing government businesses and use the proceeds to fund new infrastructure spending without having to borrow.

Sounds innocent enough, but in practice state governments haven’t resisted the temptation to maximise the sale price of their businesses by attaching to the sale the right to overcharge their state’s businesses and consumers.

This does much to explain the doubling in the retail price of electricity. The states allowed the private purchasers of their poles-and-wires businesses to abuse their natural monopoly, and let three big companies own generators as well as retailers.

Tuesday night’s budget will be affected by two relatively new forms of creative accounting. One is the way the Turnbull government exaggerates its success in reducing the size and cost of the public service by giving people redundancy payouts, then hiring them back as “consultants” on greatly inflated salaries.

Then there’s the Abbott government’s invention of “zombie measures”. You announce cuts in spending, fail repeatedly to get them legislated, but leave them in the budget’s forward estimates, thus making the projected budget balance look better than it is.

But the biggest zombie measure distorting the budget numbers we’ll see on Tuesday is the government’s repeatedly rejected plan to extend the cut in the company tax rate to big business. This one, however, makes the projected budget balance look worse than it is. The biter bit.

But by far the biggest budget fiddle – one we’ll see more of on Tuesday – is the loophole Treasury built into the budget at the time of the laughably named Charter of Budget Honesty in 1996, when the focus of attention was switched to the “underlying cash budget balance”.

The ostensible purpose was to stop wicked Labor governments understating their deficits by counting the proceeds from asset sales as a reduction in the deficit rather than an alternative way of funding the deficit. Rather than sell a government bond, you sell some of the family silver.

But Treasury defined “assets” narrowly to include physical assets (say, real estate) but exclude financial assets (such as shares in government-owned businesses).

What this means in practice is that spending on an infrastructure project doesn’t have to be counted in the budget deficit provided you set it up as a new business which, once it’s profitable, you intend to sell off.

Great trick, which the Rudd-Gillard government was happy to use to hide the then-expected $49 billion cost of its National Broadband Network.

Trouble is, the contortions NBN Co had to go through to sustain the pretence it would be profitable were sufficient to blight the project long before Malcolm Turnbull began fiddling with it, as my colleague Peter Martin has explained.

But this wasn’t sufficient to dissuade Scott Morrison from using the same trick in last year’s budget to hide the cost of the second Sydney airport and the inland railway by claiming that, in some imaginary world, they’ll be profitable businesses.

Trouble is, you can keep the spending out of your carefully fudged version of the budget deficit, but you can’t keep your additional borrowings out of the government’s accumulated debt. Watch out for more fudging on Tuesday night.
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Saturday, May 27, 2017

How our budget repair problem has been exaggerated

Before the budget Scott Morrison promised us "good debt" and "bad debt". What we actually got was less radical but more sensible.

The government has come under increasing pressure from the Reserve Bank to draw a clear distinction between its borrowing to cover "recurrent" spending (on day-to-day operations) and borrowing to cover investment in capital works ("infrastructure").

It was wrong to lump them together and claim the combined deficit constituted the government "living beyond its means", as the Coalition often has.

Government borrowing to pay for infrastructure that will deliver a flow of services to the community for many decades to come is not in any way irresponsible.

The Reserve's reason for pressing the government was its desire for "fiscal policy" (the budget) to give its "monetary policy" (low interest rates) more help trying to stimulate faster economic growth.

Make the recurrent/capital distinction and the government can move to repair its budget and avoid unjustified borrowing, while still investing in new infrastructure projects that both add to demand in the short term, and later – provided the projects are well chosen – add to the economy's potential to supply more goods and services by improving our productivity.

In this budget Malcolm Turnbull finally capitulated to this pressure, overturning decades of Treasury dogma.

Sort of. Treasury's fought a rear-guard action, retaining the old world while seeming to move to the new.

In the process it's been obliged to make clear all the budgetary cupboards in which it hides the government's spending on capital works.

In so doing it has revealed that the line between budget accounting and creative accounting is thin.

Let's start with what in accounting passes as theory. There are two main ways you can measure the financial performance of an "entity" such as a business or a government: the rough-and-ready "cash" basis, or the more careful "accrual" basis.

The private sector has been using accrual accounting for more than a century, whereas Australia's public sector moved from cash to accrual only in 1999, after the United Nations Statistical Commission shifted the national accounts framework to an accrual basis in 1993 and the Australian Bureau of Statistics complied.

The cash basis measures the government's financial performance merely by comparing the cash it received during a period – usually a financial year – with the cash it paid out during the period.

By contrast, the accrual basis puts much effort into ensuring the incomings and outgoing are properly "matched", so they are allocated to the accounting period to which they rightly apply.

If, say, on the last day of the year you paid for an insurance policy to cover you for the following year, an adjustment would be made to shift that cost to the following year's accounts.

When the feds moved their accounts and budget onto an accrual basis at the turn of this century, however, Treasury declined to play ball.

It stuck with cash, making the debatable argument that recognising government transactions according to when the cash changed hands gives a better indication of those transactions' effect on the macro economy.

(It couldn't admit the real reason. The cash basis leaves much more scope for creative accounting: quietly moving receipts and payments between periods so as to make the books look better or hide something the government finds embarrassing.)

So, to this day, the budget papers are written in two different financial languages. The bit prepared by Treasury is written in cash, whereas the much bigger bit prepared by the Finance department is written in accrual – as it's supposed to be.

Get this: our bilingual budget means the budget papers offer us four different measures of the budget bottom line to pick from.

There's the "underlying cash" balance (the one Treasury wants us to focus on), the "headline cash" balance (please don't ask questions about this one), the "fiscal" balance (the close accrual equivalent of underlying cash) and, buried up the back, the accrual-based "net operating balance".

The news is that Treasury is sticking with underlying cash as "the primary fiscal aggregate" – the one it will make sure we focus on – but will ditch the fiscal balance (always just a face-saver cooked up by Treasury) and replace it with – give "increased prominence to" – the net operating balance, henceforth known as the NOB.

Bringing the NOB from the back up to the front will "assist in distinguishing between recurrent and capital spending" because, in accountingspeak​, "operating" and "recurrent" mean the same.

Point is, the biggest practical difference between cash and accrual is their treatment of spending on capital works. In cash, it's lumped in with recurrent spending, whereas in accrual it's not. Instead, accrual includes as a recurrent or operating expense an estimate of a year's worth of "depreciation" (wear and tear) of the feds' stock of physical capital – as it should if you believe in "matching" (which Treasury doesn't).

With this unprecedented casting of a spotlight on its accounting practices, Treasury has had to admit that the NOB actually overstates the recurrent balance because it includes as an expense the feds' capital grants to the states to help cover their spending on infrastructure.

Correcting for this reduces the coming financial year's NOB from a deficit of almost $20 billion to one of just over $7 billion (just 0.4 per cent of GDP). So we're already close to a balanced recurrent budget and should be there in 2018-19, after which (if Treasury's economic forecasts prove reliable) we'll be up to a recurrent surplus of $25 billion by 2020-21.

Turns out that, from the time the budget dropped into deficit in 2008-09 until the year just ending, focusing on the underlying cash deficit rather than the corrected NOB has exaggerated the extent of our budget repair problem by a cumulative $150 billion.

So how much have the feds been spending on infrastructure? Long story. Watch this space.
Read more >>

Monday, May 16, 2016

Hard-working Aussies help pay for company tax cut

I often think Scott Morrison does a remarkably good Joe Hockey impression, but in this budget he's performed a Wayne Swan sleight-of-hand that's better than Swanny ever did.

Consider this. Big business has been desperate for a higher goods and services tax. Why? Because this was the only way the government could afford to grant them their longed for cut in company tax.

So when Malcolm Turnbull balked at increasing the GST, it seemed he wouldn't be cutting company tax either.

When the budget was unveiled, however, we still saw the government committing itself to cutting the company tax rate from 30 to 25 per cent over 10 years, and making an immediate start by cutting the rate to 27.5 per cent for all companies with turnover of less than $10 million a year, from July 1.

For good measure, Turnbull and Morrison threw in a small personal tax cut for the top quarter of earners. How on earth did they afford this without a higher GST?

Over the four years of the forward estimates, the company tax phase-down will cost $5.3 billion. Add $4 billion for the personal tax cut and we have $9.3 billion to account for.

The measures in the "tax integrity package" – which include the Google tax – should raise a net $3.3 billion.

The reforms to superannuation tax concessions will save a net $3.2 billion over the period, and the further hikes in the tobacco excise should raise $5.2 billion, meaning the three big revenue-saving measures will raise a combined $11.7 billion.

This leaves the government – the one so committed to lowering taxation – $2.4 billion ahead on the deal.

Satisfied all is in order? I'm not. Once fooled by Swanny, twice shy.

This government has done nothing but complain about how Labor committed itself to two expensive new spending programs – the national disability insurance scheme and the Gonski school funding – which proved to be "uncosted and unfunded".

What Swan did was stagger the introduction of the two schemes so that they didn't cost all that much in the first four years (the ones shown in the forward estimates) but got a lot more expensive in the following years (which we couldn't see).

Get it? This is the same trick Turnbull is using to hide the unaffordability of his vastly more expensive plan to cut the company tax rate over the next 10 years.

Little wonder he was so reluctant to reveal that the cumulative cost of the company tax "glidepath" was a paltry $48.2 billion.

So we've been told how the first $5.3 billion will be funded, but not the remaining $42.9 billion.

A key figure we haven't been told is the annual cost of the tax cut once it's fully introduced. But Deloitte Access Economics' Chris Richardson's estimate is about $16 billion a year.

Clearly, this is far more than the budget's tobacco excise increase, super reforms and company tax "integrity package" are likely to be able to cover.

In the last year of the forward estimates, 2019-20, those three measures are expected to raise only about $5.1 billion.

So if Morrison can now claim that the 10-year company tax cut phase-in has been costed, can he also claim it's been funded?

He's making the same claim Swan used to make by producing the "medium-term projection" of the budget showing it returning to surplus (in 2020-21, no change from the mid-year update) and staying in surplus until 2026-27.

Trouble is, whereas in last year's budget the government's "budget repair strategy" required it to deliver surpluses "building to at least 1 per cent of gross domestic product by 2023-24", this year's projection shows the surplus plateauing at 0.2 per cent for the last six years to 2026-27.

Why? Because progress in increasing the surplus (so as to pay back more debt) has been sacrificed to covering the ever-growing cost of the cut in company tax.

The cut really becomes expensive in the last three years, when big businesses join the phase-in. You can bet this "glidepath" has been carefully structured to stop the medium-term budget projection looking too sick.

Note too that the medium-term projection assumes tax collections are capped at 23.9 per cent of GDP after 2021-22, with the possibility that any excess is used to fund bracket-creep-returning tax cuts for Morrison's "hard-working Australians".

So the projections purporting to show that the company tax cut can be funded by our settling for seven years of a budget surplus no higher than $3.5 billion in today's dollars, also rely on the assumption of no further personal tax cuts for another six years.
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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Good reason to be angry about the banks

Are you angry about the banks? A lot of Australians are. And a lot of people in the United States and Europe are a lot angrier than we are, with good cause.

In Oz, we're annoyed mainly by the banks' very big profits and the way they never seem to miss a trick in keeping those profits high.

In other countries, people are angry about the way the banks and other financial institutions, having stuffed up their affairs to the point where they almost brought the global economy to its knees, were promptly bailed out at taxpayers' expense, so that few went bust, with almost no executives going to jail and many not even being fired.

By now, however, you're probably used to bankers and economists saying you don't understand and are quite unreasonable in your criticisms.

That's why you need to know about the book, Other People's Money, by John Kay. Kay, who's visiting Australia and this week spoke to a meeting organised by the Grattan Institute, says he wrote the book to help ordinary people understand "what it is they're angry about".

You want the dirt on the banks? No one's better qualified to spill the beans than Kay, an economics professor from Oxford and columnist for the Financial Times, who was commissioned to write a report on the sharemarket for the British government.

He starts by noting that over the past 30 or 40 years, each of the developed economies has experienced "financialisation" – huge growth in the size of what these days is called their "financial services sector" to the point where it's among their biggest industries.

For years, we've been told this is a wonderful thing, a sign of our economy's growing sophistication and ability to manage risk. Kay doesn't believe it.

We've always had a financial sector composed of banks, insurance companies and other institutions, and we've always needed one.

We've needed it to help us make payments to each other, to bring people wanting to save together with homeowners and businesses wanting to borrow, to help us save for retirement and to help individuals and businesses manage the risks associated with daily life and economic activity (insurance policies being the obvious example).

We need a financial sector to service the needs of the "real economy" of households and businesses producing and consuming goods and services. But none of this justifies the huge growth in the financial sector we've seen.

Most of that growth has come in the form of massively increased trading between the banks themselves in "financial claims", such as shares and bonds and foreign currencies and "derivatives" (claims on claims, and even – if you've seen The Big Short – claims on claims on claims).

If you add together all the financial assets ("claims") owned by all the banks and other financial outfits, they exceed by many times the value of the physical assets – such as houses and business buildings and equipment – which are the ultimate basis for all those claims.

The value of foreign currencies changing hands each day vastly exceeds the value of currencies needed by businesses and tourists paying for exports and imports. Similarly, the value of shares changing hands each day vastly exceeds companies' needs to raise new share capital and end-investors' needs to buy into the market or sell out.

Kay says that, in Britain, bank lending to firms and individuals in the real economy amounts to only about 3 per cent of their total lending.

All the rest is lending to other banks and institutions busy buying and selling bits of paper to each other – making bets with each other that the prices of those bits of paper will rise or fall in coming days.

Kay makes what, for an economist, is the very strong condemnation that almost all this speculative activity is "socially unproductive". It might or might not benefit the people doing the trading, but it's of no benefit to the rest of the economy.

He observes something I've noticed, too: economists have put little effort into explaining why all this trading in claims is so hugely profitable, allowing people near the top of the banks (but not their many foot soldiers) to be paid such amazing salaries.

If all they're doing is making bets with each other, why aren't the gains of the winners exactly cancelled out by the losses of the losers?

His answer is that the claims-trading parts of banks have found ways to exaggerate the profits they make by counting expected future profits they haven't actually captured – "paper profits" – but delaying recognition of expected "paper losses" until they're realised.

This game can continue for as long as everything's on the up and the bubble's getting bigger. Once it bursts, of course, former supposed profits become present, unavoidable losses. Many banks teeter on bankruptcy, but the government bails them out and they live to gamble another day.

Kay says the answer is to rigidly separate the old-fashioned parts of banking – the facilitation of payments, and lending to households and businesses; the bits that must be kept going through recessions – from all the speculative trading in claims.

It's a free country and "investment" banks should remain free to bet against each other, but there should be no taxpayer bailouts or other government protection for those that do their dough.
Read more >>

Monday, June 15, 2015

Your charter of budget dishonesty

Thanks to abuses by both sides, it's hard to remember a time when standards of political behaviour have sunk to lower depths. The budget papers are no exception to that general decline.

Some of the tricks used to mislead us are so technically tricky it's hard to believe they could have been thought up by the politicians themselves or their youthful private advisers.

I suspect the econocrats are complicit in providing their masters with fancy tricks, though it's more likely to be the accountants in Finance than the economists in Treasury.

The worst example of that was the attempt in last year's budget to use a "medical research future fund" to allow the government to break its promise not to cut health spending while pretending it hadn't.

The Labor government's greatest offence was to conceal the pace at which its spending was growing - and its ever-growing inability to pay for its expensive new programs - by claiming it was sticking to its policy of limiting real spending growth to 2 per cent a year "on average over the forward estimates".

That proviso allowed it to claim spending was under control: every year the lack of restraint in the budget year would be made up for by super-human restraint in the later years. After Labor departed, the econocrats dubbed this the "magic asterisk" budgeting device.

The present government's greatest crime was to exaggerate the size of the budget deficit it inherited from Labor by claiming some of its own policy decisions were part of what Labor left it with. Its unrequested $8.8 billion transfer to the Reserve Bank - essentially a book entry - was only the worst of its fiddles.

In accordance with Peter Costello's charter of budget honesty act, the honest account of what Labor left for its successors was given in the pre-election fiscal outlook issued by the heads of Treasury and Finance.

But at the time of the Coalition's mid-year budget review months later, Joe Hockey claimed its figures to be the "line in the sand" separating Labor's legacy from his own efforts.

One small problem: the mid-year review incorporated the budgetary effects of all the Coalition's election promises, including its decisions to abolish the carbon and mining taxes.

Then we find this utterly dishonest claim formally incorporated into this year's intergenerational report, turning that document into grubby political propaganda.

One element of Costello's move to budget honesty - if you need an act of parliament imposing budget honesty, you clearly have an honesty problem - was to stop governments hiding the true extent of their deficits by including proceeds from the sale of assets, which he did by shifting the focus to the "underlying" cash budget balance.

Fine. But there was a loophole in the way the underlying deficit was defined, and successive governments have exploited that loophole so as to continue misleading us. Labor went for years refusing to disclose the items explaining the difference between the "headline" and underlying deficits.

But thanks to a deal the Greens did with this government, this information is now published each year in budget statement 3. Over the five years to 2018-19, the cumulative headline deficits are expected to exceed the underlying deficits by more than $68 billion, before allowing for future fund earnings of $18 billion.

The gap is explained mainly by the expected build-up in HECS debt of $49 billion, but also by $21 billion in further spending on the National Broadband Network, which is really infrastructure spending, but is excluded from the underlying deficit because it was set up as an equity investment in a business separate from the budget.

This trick - which, like all exploitation of loopholes, is technically in accordance with the rules - was initiated by Labor, as was the (reasonable) decision to switch future fund earnings back into the underlying budget balance from 2020. Just as well, since they're expected to make up such a high proportion the small surpluses projected from that time.

A final respect in which governments use the budget papers to mislead and conceal is the arbitrary exclusion of particular tables or graphs when they could prove embarrassing. Last year's unfair budget just happened to exclude the customary "cameos" showing how particular family types would be affected by the budget's welfare changes.

This year the graphs (and their underlying numbers) for revenue and spending were missing from the 10-year projection of the budget balance, which attempted to show that the budget's return to surplus hadn't been pushed back a year by all the backdowns in the budget.

All this dishonesty just adds to the political class' declining credibility in the eyes of voters.
Read more >>

Monday, June 1, 2015

Hockey's return to surplus not credible

There's an obvious question mark over this year's budget that the media have yet to highlight: how could the Treasurer announce so many giveaways and backdowns but still claim that "our timetable back to a budget surplus is unchanged from last year"?

That's even harder to believe when you remember the $52 billion by which Joe Hockey has had to write down his expected tax collections, thanks to greater-than-forecast falls in commodity prices and slower-than-expected growth in wages.

The short answer is that Hockey is stretching the truth, creating illusions and padding his budget. And that's without questioning his forecasts and projections for the economy (as opposed to those for his budget).

In truth, his expected trajectory of the budget balance over the next decade is significantly inferior to the one he announced last year.

Last year the budget was expected to return to a surplus of about 1 per cent of gross domestic product (say, $20 billion) in 2019-20. This year the budget balance for that year is expected to be just the tiniest fraction on the positive side of zero. In reality, the projections show the budget returning  to a noticeable surplus a year later, in 2020-21.

Last year, the surplus in 2024-25 was projected to have grown to almost 1.5 per cent of GDP. This year, it's now projected to be less than 0.5 per cent.

Next, remember that the impression we were given of a bountiful, "stimulatory" budget was an illusion, the product of media manipulation. Study the budget figures and you see that when the small-business giveaways and more-generous childcare subsidies are seen in the context of all the policy changes made in the budget, the net effect on the budget balance is too small to matter.

That's mainly because of the saving of more than $10 billion over the forward estimates that the government will make by abandoning its earlier decision to introduce more-generous paid parental leave, plus its new decision to exclude big business from the cut in company tax.

The third factor that makes the revised projections for the budget balance look less bad than they actually are is that they've got a lot of padding in them.

For openers, there's what my colleague Peter Martin calls the "zombie measures" – measures announced in last year's budget that aren't alive because the Senate has rejected them, but aren't dead because they're still being counted in the forward estimates.

These include university fee deregulation, changes to family tax benefits and the discretionary increase in the pharmaceuticals co-payment.

Then there's the projected $80 billion saving  over 10 years from moving to stingier indexation of grants to the states for public schools and hospitals. These need no Senate approval, but are so tough on the states that the Feds are almost guaranteed to have to water them down.

John Daley, of the Grattan Institute, has pointed out that real growth in government spending is budgeted to average only 1.1 per cent a year until 2017-18.

"This would be remarkable restraint given long-term growth is more than 3 per cent each year," he says. "It would be particularly remarkable in a period that spans an election year."

Just a small part of this Herculean achievement would rest on the plan to claw back a grant of $1.5 billion from Victoria because the new government has refused to proceed with the East West Link. Good luck.

Another tiny part would come from the calculation that the "no jab, no pay" policy of denying benefits to parents who don't get their kids immunised would save $500 million over four years.

This is nonsense, based on the (usually sensible) rule that measures are costed without allowing for any change in behaviour they may prompt. But this measure is intended to change behaviour, forcing parents to get the jabs so they keep the pay.

To the extent it works, it will cost the government money (for more jabs) and save it nothing on benefit payments. The budget's costing assumes it will be a total failure, which is unlikely.

Saul Eslake, of Bank of America Merrill Lynch – who, along with former econocrat Dr Mike Keating, wins the prize for most diligent examination of budget entrails – has noted a change in the accounting rules so that, from 2020-21, the annual net earnings of the Future Fund will be counted as budget revenue, not as an increase in the balance in the fund.

More trivia? Not quite. Eslake estimates that this seemingly petty change will account for more than half of the budget surpluses projected for 2024-25 and 2026-26.

These books have been cooked.
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Monday, December 15, 2014

How the medical research fund is a trick

As an accountant turned journo, I try to ensure the creative accounting used to make the budget figures look better than they really are doesn't go unexposed. But I've never seen a con as audacious as the proposed medical research future fund.

I wrote at length about all the accounting tricks perpetrated by the Gillard government, but now it's the Abbott government's turn.

In their budget update during last year's election campaign, the heads of Treasury and Finance signed off on a deficit estimate for 2013-14 of $30 billion. But four months later Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann popped up with their own mid-year review claiming the deficit they'd inherited would be closer to $47 billion.

Today you'll hear Hockey repeat that claim. But that higher number was largely the result of our heroes indulging in a little creative accounting of their own.

About $7 billion of the $17 billion increase since the election was explained by Treasury revising down its forecasts for employment and wage growth and, hence, tax collections. Fair enough. But most of the remaining $10 billion involved dubious transactions our heroes claimed to have been forced to make because Labor had left them hanging.

The biggest was a transfer of $8.8 billion to the Reserve Bank - an amount the Reserve hadn't asked for and Treasury had recommended against. Its effect was to make Labor's last deficit look bigger and to make it easier for the Reserve to pay higher dividends into Hockey's subsequent budgets.

When in this year's budget Hockey announced the GP co-payment and various other cuts in health spending, he explained that these savings would be put in a new medical research future fund.

Once the money in the fund had built up $20 billion, the annual interest on the money in the fund would be used to pay for medical research. But under the changes announced last week, these payments from the net interest earned would instead begin in 2015-16.

This is an accounting trick, but it seems only students of government accounting rules can see it. People think that since the savings are being spent building up the fund, there won't be any net saving to the budget until after the $20 billion target has been reached.

Not so. The saving to the budget bottom line is immediate, though the change means this saving will be reduced a fraction by the increased spending on research.

Like many budget fiddles, this one relies on exploiting loopholes in the definition of the bottom line, the "underlying cash deficit".

The best way of thinking of it is that transactions recorded "above the line" affect the size of the deficit, whereas those recorded "below the line" don't. Below-the-line transactions are regarded as affecting only the way the deficit is financed.

The Medicare spending cuts are recorded above the line, but the decision to put an amount of money equivalent to those savings into a special fund goes below the line. It is, after all, only a decision to move money around the government's balance sheet. It doesn't involve the government spending a cent, just moving money between its accounts.

Of course, since the government is in deficit, it doesn't actually have any money to put into its medical research future fund account. So to its normal borrowing to cover the deficit it will have to add borrowing to finance the money it puts into the research fund.

This extra will add to the size of its gross public debt, but not to its net debt, since the latter is the gross debt (everything the government owes other people) minus all the money in the various parts of the future fund, which has been used to buy shares and bonds, and so represents all the money other people owe the government.

However, when the government spends the interest on the medical fund on medical research, this spending will be recorded above the line and so will add to the deficit.

Once the dust has settled, however, I expect to see a second leg of the trick brought to fruition. In a subsequent budget the government may decide that, now it's spending more on medical research via the future fund, it's able to spend less on medical research via the National Health and Medical Research Council. This brilliant con job will be complete.

What's the point of it all? Partly it's an attempt to bamboozle doctors, but mainly it's designed to allow the government to break its election promise not to cut health spending while claiming it hasn't broken it, just "reprioritised" health spending.
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