Date posted: 14/05/2020

Is it enough?

Commentary by BusinessDesk’s Pattrick Smellie. He says the Finance Minister himself seemed ready to concede that the relief and recovery fund announced today may turn out just to be a down payment on the final figure.

In Brief

  • $62 billion package is around 20% of the current total size of the NZ economy
  • Massive domestic and global economic disruption will play out over the next few years
  • Importantly, the Budget continues to target Budget surpluses

Article written by BusinessDesk's Pattrick Smellie

Today's $50 billion COVID-19, of which $20.2 billion is uncommitted, is a very large package by any measure.

But is it enough?

It comes on top of the $12 billion-odd announced on March 17 as an initial package of economic support measures, taking it to $62 billion. That's around 20 percent of the current total size of the New Zealand economy, last measured at a little more than $300 billion.

That's huge

Another way of looking at it: the debt taken on to achieve this gargantuan emergency spend-up to try and keep New Zealanders in their jobs, homes and businesses over the three to five years required to get through the average recession just about wipes out wipes out the Crown's positive net worth.

The ratio of Crown assets to debt was a healthy 45.1 percent of GDP in June last year. It shrinks to just 8.9 percent by 2024.

If the government were to borrow another $10 to $20 billion, the ship of state would be in negative equity territory – ie, technically insolvent, not that countries can ever really be measured like households or businesses.

However, it's possible that Finance Minister Grant Robertson isn't quite ready to admit quite such a deep economic hole and is simply holding back some powder for next year.

After all, the spending announced today is only roughly equivalent to the $50 billion that the Canterbury earthquakes eventually turned out to cost.

Those were hugely destructive events, but the massive domestic and global economic disruption that will play out over the next few years is likely to be much larger.

Robertson himself seemed ready to concede that the relief and recovery fund announced today may turn out just to be a down payment on the final figure.

"There will be further Budgets," he said. "But for now, this is the most significant package in New Zealand's economic history but, like many countries, we are still to become fully aware of the impacts of COVID-19."

The 's' word survives

Importantly, the Budget also continues to target Budget surpluses, which could be back as early as the middle of the decade, although that assumes the remarkably low unemployment peak and strong growth bounce backs forecast by the Treasury actually occur.

The wording is very careful and there is no articulation of a new target range for net core Crown debt to GDP to replace the now defunct target of between 15 percent and 25 percent.

It blows out to a not apocalyptic 53.6 percent of GDP by 2024 in this Budget, and Robertson seems to be thinking that debt around 30 percent of GDP would be quite acceptable. Even at just above 50 percent, it's still far below most other OECD countries and underlines how fortunate New Zealand is to have fiscally prudent governments led by both the Labour and National parties since the 1980s.

What about the journos?

For journalists from the large, traditional providers of news coverage, there was nothing after much expectation of a second package of news media assistance. Robertson said help was still on the way, in a few weeks.

While sports and events sector support packages will come from the $15.9 billion announced today, it was revealing that assistance to news media will come from "other allocations."

Either that means that existing department budgets will be raided or redirected to assist news media, or that there is in fact already a recognition that the $62 billion already set aside for the COVID-19 response is already at the low end of what the final spend could look like.

No transformation

Either way, one of the most difficult questions to answer ahead of implementation is how well-spent these enormous sums will be.

There is a lot here that will be spent by government departments on well-meaning programmes to assist the private sector, some of which will be delivered slowly, inefficiently and with a limited understanding of how businesses actually think and work.

Others, including make-work schemes in the countryside, will keep people busy, but their economic and environmental contribution beyond lifeblood cashflow to local communities will be highly debatable unless structured in a competitive way where goals are both clear and achieved.

There is very little in the way of the transformative vision that some may have hoped to see from the epochal disruption of a pandemic. Perhaps that is a good thing, but this is a big-spending Budget that is remarkably operational, almost managerial, in its decision-making.

Taxes and benefits untouched

The task of apportioning the burden of that eventual cost is also left for future Budgets.

While there is a line in the Budget documents about the need for tax rates to be seen as "fair", there is no tax reform in this Budget, and that makes sense.

The tax debate needs a reset to try again to get a better balance between tax on income and wealth. Just before an election is not the time to do that.

Beneficiaries and pensioners see nothing more in this Budget, apart from some targeted programmes aimed at social dysfunction. The benefit increases announced on March 17 were the most that people on a benefit will get this year.

There is also no well-being impact analysis with this Budget, despite this being a key part of this government's changes to how fiscal policy should be reported and assessed.

But the second-ever Budget Child Poverty Report says what anyone could have guessed: measures of material hardship "are expected to rise sharply", but by a so far unknowable amount.

More wage support?

It remains to be seen too whether another 12 weeks of wage subsidies will be enough for tourist, events and hospitality employers who have faced extreme income loss over recent months and can expect only a slow resumption to trading.

It looks inevitable that at least some of the unspent $20.2 billion announced today will go to further, increasingly targeted wage support. By later this year, however, the closure of unsustainable businesses in these and other sectors will become inevitable.

The political question for the government is how much of that damage will occur before the Sept 19 election. The fear for the Opposition parties is that it will use that $20.2 billion as a slush fund to buy votes by saving jobs that will still be lost by the end of the year anyway.

Supplied by BusinessDesk

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