Nat O'Connor: Fine Gael has given some useful clarity on their fiscal policy position with the declaration that they would seek €1 billion in tax increases for every €3 billion in cuts (Irish Examiner). Across the period of the four-year plan, this suggests that they would seek to close the deficit while making Ireland an even lower tax economy than it was before the boom; which can only mean the wholesale removal or reduction of public services, and significant cuts to public pay and/or numbers.
The implications of the 3:1 ratio can be spelled out in more detail once we establish just how much needs to be cut in the four-year plan.
The Opposition finance spokespersons were given access to data by the Department of Finance today. Is it just political theatre, or did the spokepersons really not know that the adjustment needs to be more than €7.5 billion over the four-year plan?
Consider, we have known for some time that the deficit is c.€19 billion (not including the banks), although it now seems that it might come closer to €20 billion. In July, the IMF's most recent report on Ireland suggests that the structural deficit is eight and a half per cent of GDP (i.e. the bit that won't go away when the economy recovers, welfare payment decrease, tax increases, etc.); which is €13.6 billion (8.5% of 2010's estimated GDP of c.€160 billion). So, it should have been obvious to them for some time that the four-year plan will have to make adjustments of c. €12-14 billion to meet the target of 3 per cent of GDP by 2014.
Note, I'm assuming that the economy will not have moved to the height of another economic cycle, so we would need to clear the entire structural deficit by 2014, assuming that at least €5 billion of a cyclical deficit remains, which will diminish with further economic growth. (€5 billion in today's money is the 3 per cent of GDP requirement under the Eurozone SGP). Arguably, the target for cutting the structural deficit could be slightly less, if the economy recovers faster and helps closes the gap. Hence, my use of the range €12-14 billion.
If we seek a €12 billion adjustment, Fine Gael's 3:1 ratio equates to €3 billion in taxation and €9 billion in cuts; €14 billion would imply €3.5 billion in tax and €10.5 billion in cuts.
A more moderate approach would be a 1:1 ratio, with an equal balance of tax and spending reductions; for €6-7 billion of each.
Patrick Honahan, before he became Governor of the Central Bank, suggested that Ireland's tax take could increase by 3 per cent of GDP (i.e. €4.8 billion) (e.g. quoted here). And that level of tax increase is just to return us to the same type of low tax economy we had before the boom. Nonetheless, if €4.8 billion was taken as an ideal level of tax increases, that would imply €7.2 billion to €9.2 billion in cuts. That is a ratio of 2:3 or almost 1:2 (depending on whether we adjust by €12 or €14 billion). Hence, Fine Gael, with only €3 or €3.5 billion in taxes, would not even reach the €4.8 billion that Patrick Honahan suggests is a credible target.
And once we have established what levels of tax and spending cuts each party wants in the four-year plan, the next question is timing; that is, should we frontload the adjustment? Or keep a more even pace? Or should be push out the deadline for fiscal adjustment by a few years? Leo Varadker of Fine Gael is on record calling for more adjustment sooner. TASC argues for a slower pace (€3 billion adjustment in 2010) to avoid damaging the economy too much in one year.
Of course, we will have to deal with more than the structural part of the deficit if we don't foster recovery in the economy!
TASC's budget proposals argue that we need to foster economic growth through targetted investment to build up human capital and intellectual capital (education, training, R&D) as well as physical infrastructure (broadband, schools, renewable energy). Speaking at the Kenmare economics conference, Leo Varadker emphasised his disagreement with the TASC proposals and signaled Fine Gael's intention to focus all investment on infrastructure (including broadband and renewable energy, but also forestry and other areas).
It would be nice if every political party could state what ratio they would choose between tax and cuts, as it would be a useful rule-of-thumb for the broad implications of their fiscal policy. Likewise, we'd need to see their timescale and what they would do to foster economic recovery.
More importantly, from TASC's perspective, it will be essential to see how each party's four-year plan would change the distribution of income and level of economic equality in Ireland. Tax change and cuts to public services affect different segments of the society differently. Whatever package of fiscal policy decisions are taken in these four-year plans will shape our society, as well as the economy, for quite some time.