The fiscal balance gets a lot of attention from the press on Budget Day. It is usually in deficit (it has been so since the 1990s) and the theme has always been fiscal consolidation. Even when Pakatan Harapan was in power, reassessed the government’s fiscal goal and raised its 2018 fiscal deficit from a projected 2.8% of GDP to 3.7%, the consolidation narrative was intact and bought by credit rating agencies.
This time the fiscal deficit will be much larger. Understandably so given the current economic condition brought by extraordinary circumstances. I would think any mention of fiscal consolidation would be inappropiate.
But the more important figure this time around would likely be a different kind of balance: the current balance.
For the uninitiated:
- Fiscal balance is the product of all of government revenue subtracted from all of government expenditure. Here, total expenditure is the sum of operating and development expenditures.
- Current balance is all of government revenue minus only the operating expenditure.
By definition, operating expenditure involves the day-to-day running of government, like paying wages, interest payment, grants, subsidies and various supplies and services. Development expenditure involves investment into some kind of long-term assets.
There is a logic behind the division between the two expenditures (although it is being increasingly questioned in the past year). As the reasoning goes, the government’s daily operating concerns should be fully funded by the government revenue. This prevents the government from borrowing for non-capacity improving purposes.
Accounting and law, but not economics
But it feels the distinction between the two expenditures is blurry because money is fungible. More than anything else, the distinction exists in concrete terms only because of accounting definitions operationalized by the law. In Malaysia, all borrowings (specifically MGS, GII and Treasuries as I understand it) must be used for the purpose of development expenditure. This is specified by the Loan (Local) Act 1959 and the Government Funding Act 1983. In the 1959 act, it is written so in Part II and in the 1983 act, Article 4. More precisely, any borrowing raised must be deposited into the government’s development fund, which is used for development expenditure, and not operational spending.
If that is wordy, the bottom line is this: the law demands that the current balance must never be in deficit.
Indeed, in the whole modern history of Malaysia, for the most parts, the government has maintained current surplus. The last time Malaysia had a current deficit was in 1987. See the following chart.
The thing with laws like this is, when it comes face to face with economic forces, the economics usually win. If the laws are to be followed down to the letters in this regard, the government would probably be forced to resort to some extraordinary measures.
Current deficit likely for 2020
For year 2020, regular revenue has been falling dramatically, while expenditure has likely gone up. The spending is not developmental in nature too. Things like wage subsidies sound more operational than developmental. As a result, it is likely for the government to face its first current deficit in more than 30 years and it should be big, if nothing is done.
Strict adherence to current balance restriction is one of the reasons why Malaysia is considered as having limited fiscal room to maneuver. Refer back to the chart and observe the small surplus since the late 2000s.
Change the law, loosen the artificial limit
The truth is, the restriction is artificial and it only exists because of the law and given the crisis we are facing, the law is counterproductive to the maintenance of our welfare and the health of the economy. The crisis that we are facing is just out of this world and traditional tools are inadequate to handle the situation well.
Here is a proposal: amend the Local (Loan) Act 1959, Government Funding Act 1983 and other relevant laws to allow for borrowing for operational spending. This will give the government greater flexibility, and more fiscal room to act.
Safeguards could be put in place if the restriction removal is too radical. For instance, we could demand the sum of 5 years’ worth of current balance must be in surplus. Such 5-year instead of yearly schedule could enable government finance to accommodate economic cycles better, and allow for more effective counter-cyclical spending.
Other current balance things to look out for
Finally, here are a set of things we should look out for when it comes to current balance:
- Extraordinary revenue measures. I probably mean something like extra dividend. The government has demanded and will be receiving an extra RM10 billion worth of dividend this year. Other entities we should look out for are the central bank and Khazanah. There are other entities with sizable reserves and money doing nothing that potentially could be given out as dividend to the government.
- Reclassification of spending. Despite the distinction between operating and development expenditure, the actual classification between the two can be fluffy. So, watch out for some operating expenditure being reclassified as development expenditure for accounting purposes. You know the joke about accountants. No? See the notes.
- Off-budget spending done by companies owned by the Ministry of Finance Inc. Pakatan Harapan tried to rein in on this by making it more transparent and slowly bringing it into the book proper. The shift toward accrual accounting should make off-budget spending less controversial and irrelevant. But with this new government in place, progress toward accrual accounting is in doubt and commitment toward not using off-budget spending is likely non-existent.
 — For the fun of it:
A businessman was interviewing job applications for the position of manager of a large division. He quickly devised a test for choosing the most suitable candidate. He simply asked each applicant this question, “What is two plus two?”
The first interviewee was a journalist. His answer was, “22”.
The second was a social worker. She said, “I don’t know the answer but I’m very glad that we had the opportunity to discuss it.”
The third applicant was an engineer. He pulled out a slide rule and came up with an answer “somewhere between 3.999 and 4.001.”
Next came an attorney. He stated that “in the case of Jenkins vs. the Department of the Treasury, two plus two was proven to be four.”
Finally, the businessman interviewed an accountant. When he asked him what two plus two was, the accountant got up from his chair, went over to the door, closed it, came back and sat down. Leaning across the desk, he said in a low voice, “How much do you want it to be?”
He got the job.