Ten months into 2014, I have now resigned to the fact that my projection for the annual inflation rate in Malaysia is too high, with the actual rate being relatively benign. The reason I had put it so high — it was in the region of 3.5%-4.0% compared to what it would likely be, which is 3.0%-3.5% — was that I had expected a drastic subsidy cut early on. It did not happen until yesterday. Even yesterday’s cut is not enough to salvage my projection. I have of heard drastic, crazily complicated plans to revamp the subsidy system that would definitely help me be right, but that has either been postponed, or canceled. While I like to be right, I hope the convoluted system will be canceled. I hope the government would just stick with subsidy cut-cash transfer policy.
Politically, subsidy cuts are always a hot potato. It attracts criticisms from a whole lot of people.
Me? While I have criticized certain cuts from time to time, I am generally supportive of it for various reasons. I have been a long-time supporter of transforming subsidies into cash transfer. This time around, I do not have much reason to oppose the cut. Government influence, at least from the GDP perspective, is coming down, suggesting less government spending with the wider economy in mind.
So, I think I would like to engage on two criticisms directed at the recent cut. One questions the cut on the basis that crude oil prices are coming down. Another goes, subsidy cannot be cut until there is a viable public transportation system in place first.
On oil falling prices, I have said it in the past and one person has brought it up on Twitter (where I spend most of my time these days neglecting this blog, my column, my book project … and work… maybe by just a bit), that the best time to eliminate fuel subsidies is when prices are low, like right now. Acting when prices are low is acting from a position of strength and not out of desperation. If the argument that says we should not cut subsidy when prices are falling down is a good one, then when exactly should we cut it?
Is it never?
If the answer is not never, consider the counterfactual. If prices are higher, would that be the best time to cut subsidy then? Under the scenario of the rising prices, the effect of subsidy cuts on consumers and the economy at large would likely be greater than when cutting it when prices are low, because at that time, the situation would have been more desperate and would probably demand steeper cuts. There would likely result more shocks to the consumers that make the pain of higher cost more acute than it should be. As I have written on Twitter in a snappier way, “[you] criticize the cuts because oil prices are coming down. If prices were going up, would you be happy with bigger, more desperate cuts?”
From government finance perspective, I think cutting it earlier makes more sense. It means more saving for the government to finance other stuff earlier. If we are to wait for the government to cut subsidy only when prices are rising some time in the future, then the saving would probably be lower. The saving can finance the cash transfer program, among others.
Besides, a responsible policymaker wants a countercyclical policy. You do stuff that are painful but necessary during the good times, not during when times are bad. Look at the effect of austerity. The criticism of European austerity is exactly because of the poor timing of its austerity program.
On the point that we should wait until the public transportation system is good, I think this is a costly wait-and-see game. It is also partly a chicken-and-egg issue.
I label it as a wait-and-see game because the last MRT line is scheduled to only be completed by 2020. Keep in mind that construction on the two other lines has not started yet. Even then, I am unsure the public transport system would be reliable with comprehensive coverage. Do we want to keep the subsidy regime running until we are completely sure the transportation system is completely up and running in donkey-years’ time? That is a lot of money, never mind who knows what will happen with crude oil prices until then.
I also box this particular criticism against the cut as a chicken-and-egg problem. I would even argue it is a case of Catch-22. We need the money to invest in public transportation, but we do not have the money to do so if we keep up with the subsidy regime. We need to break the loop and not engage in such mind-numbing logic. At the very least, the cut in the subsidy bill and in the deficit ratio could help bring yields on government debt down, allowing the government or the relevant government-linked bodies to borrow at a cheaper rate to fund infrastructure project.
“But,” you say, “we are going to have the GST!” Yes, but I think every saving helps. “But,” you go on, “what about corruption-wastage-leakage in government spending? Sure, I share your concerns there but I think that requires some political changes but that requires some effort. In the meantime, until that happens, it should not prevent us from doing other stuff. It is not a mutually exclusive problem and it is not a sequencing problem either.
Ultimately, I see the argument on public transportation as one that prefers to do nothing.