A thought, or two, about federated and unitary states finance, and consolidated public sector finance
September 26th, 2012 by Hafiz Noor Shams
I have been doing some preparatory work for a report on the 2013 federal government budget. The budget will be tabled at the Parliament this Friday.
In the course of doing so, I have come to wonder if the comparison of budget deficit (as typically understood) across governments of the world is really fair. Specifically, I do not think it is fair to compare the fiscal balance of a federated state with that of an unitary state, especially if one is concerned with the health of the overall economy and not just the financial health of the government.
This suspicion came after I read the consolidated public sector account for Malaysia.
One reason for the suspicion is this: one way to measure the solvency of the government is to see if the government can finance its operating expenditure and pay all of its borrowings interest purely by its revenue. This is called the primary surplus/deficit or the primary balance.
The reason is that through this, the government can fulfill all financial claims against it without embarking on new investments that require further financing while providing essential services to citizens and others largely unimpeded. To put it in another way, for government finance to be sustainable, it should be able to purely finance its consumption through its revenue only, and not by borrowing further (this comes with the assumption the interest rate is above zero. If the rate is zero and below, well, borrow away).
Looking at the federal government, most of the times there were no problem. According to the latest Bank Negara Malaysia’s Monthly Statistical Bulletin, most quarters registered a surplus as far as the primary balance is concerned. On yearly basis, there have been surpluses since 1981 (the earliest data available in the bulletin) with the exception of 1987 and 1986.
But according to the consolidated account (the Treasury identified it as consolidated public sector account which includes the finances of the federal government, all state governments, various statutory bodies and all local governments), then there is a huge deficit to contend with. In fact, it is estimated that there was a RM35 billion primary deficit for the first half of 2012. In 2011, it was estimated to be RM30 billion.
A little word of warning: the numbers for the federal government revenue from the Treasury significantly differ from the ones produced in the BNM Monthly Statistical Bulletin. So, the comparison is somewhat off.
Even so, if the Treasury numbers are right, then the consolidated public sector account tells a very different story than the one we used to. This may suggest that the wider public sector may have a problem balancing its primary balance.
As far as comparing federated and unitary states is concerned, maybe only the federal and the state government accounts should be combined to allow for a truer comparison. Without the necessary adjustment, a federation may have better financial health than a unitary state only artificially.
Another thing about the consolidated account is that it tells us that in 2011, the public sector suffered from 9.9% deficit to nominal GDP. This is much higher than the federal government’s 4.8% deficit to GDP.
On the 9.9% deficit to GDP, the point of comparing the deficit to nominal GDP is to incorporate the idea that a growing economy allows for more fund raising by the government. More generally, it informs whether there is space in the economy to raise more money through borrowing. The deficit derived from the consolidated account suggests that there is less room compared to what is suggested by the federal government finance.