[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.


[2800] What is the fiscal deficit status now?

Back in January, the official deficit projection for 2015 was revised up by the government to 3.2% of GDP from 3.0% due to the falling energy prices. I concluded then the new target was achievable if government revenue would increase by at least 1.2% YoY. It was a reasonable target eight or nine months ago.

Unfortunately, a lot of things have happened since then and that 1.2% YoY revenue growth does not look easy anymore. That means, the current deficit target seems incredible now.

I have updated my sensitivity analysis. I think the fiscal deficit this year will likely be around 3.5%-3.9% of GDP. I did a tighter projection for work but I can afford to cast a wider net here.

Below is a table of deficit-to-GDP, dependent on revenue and NGDP changes this year. I have highlighted several cells in red corresponding to my expectations.

2015 Fiscal deficit sensitivity analysis

The assumptions (projections?) are:

  1. 0%-2% revenue contraction
  2. 4%-5% NGDP growth.
  3. For government spending growth, I imputed 1.2% YoY into my model, which is the exact increase the government announced from its budget revision back in January. I do not expect any spending cut due to… hmm… some political imperatives and I suppose, Keynesian tendencies within the government. I am unsure how the Monday announcement would affect spending as details are scarce so far but my gut feeling says it will not matter.

The weaker revenue is mostly due to depressed petroleum tax collection, lower petroleum royalties and lower dividend. I am a bit unsure how other taxes, especially company and individual income taxes, will change. But what we do have is the first half data and individual income tax collection is already down by 33% YoY, partly, I guess, because of the earlier tax cuts. Company income tax collection rose strongly however, increasing 43% YoY but judging from earning reports so far, I think the second half will be very different.

The 1MDB Minister Prime Minister Finance Minister will table the government budget on October 23. We will know more then.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
p/s — It would be interesting to compare current assumptions with past ones:

  1. My current expectation is based on 1.2% spending growth, 0%-2% revenue contraction and 4%-5% NGDP growth. These are part of the three assumptions listed above.
  2. Back in January 2015 during the revised budget, the assumptions were 1.2% spending growth, 1%-2% revenue growth and 4%-5% NGDP growth.
  3. The original 2015 official projection, shared in October 2014, was 3.2% spending growth, 4.5% revenue growth and 9% NGDP growth.

You can see the drastic change in projections and assumption since October 2014. Maybe a table will be clearer for comparison:

Malaysian deficit ratio target change

Conflict & disaster Economics

[2760] The deficit can wait

I have been supportive of the government’s attempt at closing the deficit. I do celebrate the significant fiscal progress made over the past five or six years.

In retrospect, it was easy to back the cuts because the times were generally good. After a recession in 2009, the Malaysian economy grew quite well almost every quarter and that made tough policies easier to swallow.

But times are changing and what was swallowed easily yesterday will be tough today. Those tough policies will be hard on almost everybody now if executed too religiously.

The situation has changed so fast that I feel almost nobody ”• at least as far as I can see in the financial market ”• still believes the original deficit target of 3.0 per cent to GDP for 2015 is credible anymore. It will be challenging to meet the target and if the government insists on meeting it anyway, something has to give and that something will be overall economic growth.

Growth here is not merely an economic figure appearing in someone’s spreadsheet. It is people’s livelihood which is at stake.

Partly in my effort to be pragmatic and partly from observing from afar the horrible European experience arising from the wrong timing of its austerity program, I have come to believe in having a counter-cyclical policy. We commit to tough reforms making the economy more efficient during the good times and then we give it a slack when things are not so sunny and cheery.

What I am saying here is that the government here in Malaysia should be flexible with its deficit target for the time being.

I sincerely believe we can afford to do so because we have done serious fiscal reforms recently. Petrol and diesel subsidies are no more after years of gradual cuts and we are finally implementing the goods and services tax after years of contemplating it. I think the long term trajectory from the initiatives has already set the right direction.

My only disappointment is that these reforms were not done sooner due to political concerns. Everybody was so concerned about their political prospect that they forgot or even ignored the country’s future. For months, the government went on autopilot and the subsidy cuts themselves were put on hold for quite some time as the government prepared for the 2013 general election. We lost valuable policy time and now the window is closing.

But what is done is done and perhaps, that is just the cost of maintaining a democracy, however flawed ours is. If we believe in countercyclical policy, we should now switch our focus from fiscal tightening to some kind of relaxation.

In fact, with this framework in mind we should target the deficit within an economic cycle instead of the Gregorian calendar and I think, again, with the reforms done, we should be able to close the gap in the long run.

And we ”• when I use the pronoun we here particularly, I mean the government; after all, we elected the government regardless whether we like those sitting in Putrajaya spending our money ”• do honestly have a legitimate requirement to spend this time around, which runs contrary to keeping the what seems to be an impossible deficit target to meet.

No, it is not about saving 1Malaysia Development Berhad ”• a beast which we will have to address ”• or paying thousands of ringgit for a set of screwdrivers, or even giving more free money to suspicious grantpreneurs and selecting winners in the economy. It is about helping fellow Malaysians.

Pictures of devastation from the recent floods are heartbreaking. As fellow citizens, it is our duty to lighten their burden and the government is our primary agent to do so. Not some political parties, not some NGOs, not some volunteers. It is good to see people helping out but our agent is the government. We pay taxes and we expect the government to provide the basic infrastructure that the country needs to go forward. It is the basic role of a government.

These infrastructures from water to bridges to schools in the east coast need repairs. We need to spend for the repairs and in many cases, for reconstruction altogether.

That spending would probably hit the deficit figures but it is for a good cause. The deficit can wait for another day.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on January 17 2015.


[2735] How has the deficit cut drive affected the GDP?

The Malaysian federal government appears committed to cutting its fiscal deficit down to 3.0% of NGDP by 2015 (from 3.9% in 2013) and then balancing it by 2020. I think the 2015 target is achievable, especially with the GST coming in next year. As for the 2020 goal, that is far into the future to matter right now (in any case, I am a bit skeptical).

The deficit is slowly coming down. Sure, the expanding NGDP has helped a lot in bringing the ratio down but yearly government expenditure in 2013 did grow only 0.4% YoY, in contrast to the double-digit yearly growth seen recently. You could see it from the annual deficit in absolute terms. It was MYR43.8 billion in 2010 and in 2013, it was MYR39.5 billion.  There is seriousness in the deficit cutting exercise, even if it is a recent phenomenon.

The seriousness however may bring another problem.

The combined government spending and government investment (public GFCF) figure has been growing pretty slowly. I would not call it austerity like some have. That is just loose talk. But still:

growth public sector

We do not really see the effect of slower public spending-investment growth on the RGDP headline in 1Q14, which grew 6.2% YoY, partly due to a low base effect (I think if you somewhat control the base effect, real growth might come out to 5.3% YoY, which is okay). Exports have been recovering strongly and that hides the weakness in government-related GDP components. Government-related components, make about 20%-30% of the total GDP.

Not that I am advocating more government spending. But if you are worried about just the headline growth regardless of its components, then this should probably bug you.

The strong export recovery also hides a weakening private consumption expansion caused by the subsidy rationalization exercise, which is a bigger issue. Private consumption makes up 60%-70% of the GDP. It grew slower from 7.4 YoY in 4Q13 to to 7.1% YoY in 1Q14. The 7.1% YoY is not a bad growth but it would likely decelerate further, with more subsidy cuts seem to be on the way as well as that expected benchmark rate hike. Also, the 2H13 private consumption growth rates were pretty high: it would be hard to maintain the same rates unless the consumers and the private sector get some big break. A break would mean no more subsidy cut for the year.

In short, the strong export recovery would probably hide the slower expansion experienced by the domestic GDP components in 1Q14.

Exports would like continue to grow for the rest of the year, but I am unsure how it well it would carry the whole economy when the other pistons are having issues (and one purposely being suppressed).