[2923] Watch out for the current balance in Budget 2021

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.[1]
  3. 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.

Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reservedHafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — 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.



[2908] Defund non-critical ministries to fund the Ministry of Health more

The public health system is in need of more resources to manage the Covid-19 pandemic. We all talk about flattening the curve but government’s incompetence that caused the Tuesday fiasco means the peak will likely get higher and higher and the time needed to fight this will go longer and longer.

This is the time to direct more resources towards the public health system. Specifically, the budget for the Ministry of Health needs to be enlarged significantly so that they can build whatever capacity they can and need in this short period of time ahead of the peak.

Raising the overall budget might be difficult, with the current balance likely collapsing and legal requirements in the way. These legal requirements maybe artificial, but it is a barrier that not many at the Treasury I would imagine willing to break (in any case, raising the fiscal deficit is inevitable and even preferable). The chart below shows the little fiscal space the government has with respect to current balance.

So, I am suggesting the second best solution is to defund non-critical ministries, and redirect those money towards the Ministry of Health, and other relevant ministries crucial in making health measures effective fast. I do not know which non-critical ministries should be defunded, but there are indeed many programs across various ministries, even overlapping programs, that exist out of political considerations, but little social and economic functions.

The reallocation may require parliamentary approval. So we may need emergency parliamentary sitting ahead of the May 2020 schedule.

I know the government fears a vote of no confidence, but in time of crisis I think both sides should come together as one, and pass such reallocation quickly. We can delay our political differences to after the crisis is over.


[2875] There is no austerity in Malaysia

The term austerity is gaining currency in some Malaysian circles. The press and several brokers have mentioned it to describe what they think the Malaysian government is doing in light of various renegotiation or cancellation of megaprojects.

Austerity is a sexy term to pull in some eyeballs but really, I think the term has been used rather loosely to a point that it is inaccurate enough and starts to lose its meaning.

So what is austerity? How do we define austerity?

The first pass-definition should be an overall cut in absolute government spending. In other words, austerity happens when the government runs contractionary fiscal policy. A slowdown in government spending growth itself is insufficient to qualify as austerity. It has to be a cut in spending itself.

The refining factor to work with the first-pass definition is a significant tax hike that discourages spending and contributes to economic contraction. For those with knowledge in macroeconomics, I am thinking of a simple shift to the left in the IS curve in the IS-LM framework, which results in economic contraction.

Yet another refining definition is if these two contractionary policies – reduced government spending, higher tax or both – happen during a period of economic contraction. In tighter language, austerity is when fiscal policy works pro-cyclically during a downturn.

In Malaysia so far, that has not happened. Neither fiscal policy and the economy are in contractionary mode. Public data shows January-August government spending increased by 6.1% this year versus the same period last year. For the May-August period, government spending rose 1.1% YoY. From GDP perspective, public investment and spending rose in the first half of 2018 versus the first half of 2017. Meanwhile, the economy expanded 5.8% and 4.9% in both nominal and real terms in the first half of 2018 versus the same period last year.

And we must not forget, Malaysians received a significant tax cut in the form of 3-month tax holiday and the replacement of value-added consumption tax GST with the less burdensome production tax SST.

Meanwhile, the government has made public statements that Malaysia is not embarking on any austerity program, although it has committed itself to cleaning up its accounts due to years of off-budget abuses and opaque dealings.

Under this situation of continuing economic growth, public spending expansion and the absence of a tax hike, I think it is clear there is no austerity in place.

The truth is, many of the renegotiation and cancellation do not lead to absolute cuts. Rather, the changes are there to make way for other spending that are aimed to be more productive than, for instance, merely servicing overpriced debt for financially and economically unsustainable megaprojects negotiated incompetently by the previous corrupt government.

What is happening is a reallocation of resources. Not absolute cuts. Definitely not austerity.


[2777] Rebasing, revision and GDP-ratio targets

From time to time, economic statistics get revised. Usually statisticians require a lot of time to compile data and in that mad rush, certain data could left out first and included only later when everybody gets a chance to reflect. There is nothing structural about the revision. It is just about errors, corrections and business as usual.

Other times, the revisions are more structural. Some are structural only because of definition change like what happened with the concept “external debt” last year. Others include very deep changes. An example of that is the GDP rebasing exercise and it affects policy targets.

The Malaysian GDP gets rebased once every five years and the exercise consists of two parts: rebasing and revision.

The rebasing itself is simply a manipulation of index but the more significant part of the exercise is the revision that include/exclude of new/old sectors. Strictly speaking, the change in the composition of the GDP is not rebasing but instead, it is a structural revision. It is really the revision that makes rebasing such a big deal.

The revision is a problem for any policy with GDP-ratio targets as it can make such targets quickly irrelevant. Since Malaysia structurally revises its GDP once every five years (for instance, from 2010 to 2014, the GDP base year was 2005. For 2015 till 2019, the base is 2010), any GDP-related target formulated in 2013 for instance could become problematic in 2015 when a new GDP series is used.

Here are two examples.

First is the 55%-to-GDP debt limit that the Malaysian government maintains. Notwithstanding the off-the-budget spending criticism as well as the fact that the limit itself is a paper tiger and assigned arbitrarily, the government promises to keep its debt below 55% of GDP. Previously, a lot of people were worried that the government would breach the limit. Not so much now and this is largely because of the revision.

As you can see, the old GDP series (with the 2005 base) has the government cutting it close but under the 2010 GDP series, there is a lot of space still for fiddling around:

Effect of GDP revision on Malaysian debt limit

The implication? It gives the government more room to borrow just because the GDP statistics have been revised upward while allowing the government to keep to its words.

Another example is the fiscal balance of the federal government. You can see, the Malaysian fiscal deficit ratio is slightly lower under 2010 GDP series compared to the 2005 series.

Effect of GDP revision on fiscal balance

The ratio changes are not trivial from policy perspective.

In the case of deficit, previously thought to be a severe policy under one GDP series might not be so severe under the other after all. For instance, the federal government recently revised its deficit target from 3.0% to 3.2%. But 3.2% deficit under the 2005 GDP series is harder to achieve than it is under the 2010 GDP series. If the government sticks with the 3.2% target after the rebasing/revision, then the government could have higher absolute deficit and actually borrow more than it would have if there was no rebasing/revision exercise.

To put it simply, the goal post moves and it becomes larger.

This is part of the reason why I prefer to target deficit on government revenue instead of  on GDP.

I suppose the other way to correct for this is to tighten those targets every time there is a rebasing exercise.

And there are other policies beside fiscal that look at GDP-ratio too.

I think the revision would become less of an issue if it is done every year. The problem with doing it once every five years is the sudden jump, which can throw a lot of targets into questions. Policymakers make targets simply on incomplete and dated data. In fact, any target made based on the status quo would be softer than it looks like.

A yearly revision would solve that and make any GDP-ratio target more robust.

Economics Politics & government

[2755] Federal grants to Malaysian states in 2013

There are a lot of discussions about federal-state relations, especially with respect to Sabah and Sarawak. But I find those discussions and the points stressed are really hard to pin down in terms of numbers. So, I am putting the following chart up, mostly for my own purpose, and perhaps, also for the make benefit for glorious people of the benefit of others interested in the debate.

Here is a chart presenting all the federal grants paid by the federal government to all the 13 states in Malaysia:


I obtained them from the federal government’s Anggaran Perbelanjaan Persekutuan 2015 document that was released on Budget Day last week. If you are interested in it, the figures can be found in Annex E of the document.

I apologize for the colors.

I have to highlight that this chart contains only grants. Things like petroleum royalties are not included because those are paid by Petronas, not the federal government.

And this of course presents only one side of the story. It would be interesting to collate all of government spending as well as income that went to/came from each state. Then we can calculate the balance. By doing so, we can know which state is the net recipient or contributor in this federation of ours. That perhaps could back any argument with some kind of data rather than merely strong beliefs. The exercise may sound simple, as if it involves just going through the government accounts. But federal spending can be so distributed among ministries and various bodies that essentially are linked back to the government that tracking them can be a real challenge.

That said, the relationship we maintain in this federation goes beyond fiscal matters. Just do not be too fixed on the economics. I think it is safe to say that economics is not nearly everything there is in life.