State faces deeper debt as public finances continue to deteriorate


OPINION:The latest exchequer figures show that the collapse in tax revenue appears to be accelerating - and the implications for next year are worrying, writes Colm McCarthy

GOVERNMENT SPENDING for the 11 months to November is more or less on track, and could even come in 1 per cent or so below the amount budgeted for the year. But revenue has collapsed.

In the 11 months to the end of November, tax revenue was only 84 per cent of the figure pencilled in by the Department of Finance last December, when budget 2008 was introduced.

The shortfall in tax revenue for the year as a whole looks likely to be just short of €8 billion, which equates to over 4 per cent of nominal GDP, an unprecedented shortfall.

What is most worrying about the revenue collapse is that it appears to be accelerating, and the November figures were just horrendous.

November is a critical month for tax receipts, since it is the month in which self-employed income tax and capital gains tax is paid.

It is also the month in which about half of the full year's corporation tax is normally paid, and it is one of the six VAT payment months through the year. About 20 per cent of total tax revenue in a normal year comes in during the month of November.

The department expected that about €10.5 billion would be paid in November. The actual figure was €7.4 billion, only 71 per cent of what was expected and a shortfall of over €3 billion in a single month. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

As a result, the Government's deficit for 2008 will not now be contained to the 5.5 per cent of GDP estimated in the recent Budget figures, and could drift up to a range of perhaps 6.5 - 7 per cent.

More importantly, the implications for next year's public finances are extremely worrying. Much of the weakness in November was due to poor receipts from capital gains tax and corporation tax, and there is hardly much prospect of an improvement under these headings in 2009.

All of the main categories of revenue are vulnerable to the fate of the overall economy, and economic forecasts in Ireland and elsewhere are being pared back. The assumptions on which the recent Budget forecasts were based were not terribly rosy, but could nonetheless prove too optimistic.

Some forecasters expect real income in the economy to decline more sharply than the small contraction assumed in the Budget figures, and there may be little or no inflation next year.

This would normally be greeted as good news, but of course it is bad news for Government finances, since many taxes, notably VAT, would be hit by static or falling prices. I expect that, when the next round of economic forecasts are published, they will foresee a deficit next year of up to 9 per cent of GDP, a full 2.5 percentage points more than the Government had pencilled in at Budget time.

Each year in the budget, a three-year forward time-path is given for the overall deficit. The official target is to get back just below 3 per cent of GDP (coincidentally the maximum permitted in normal circumstances under the rules of the euro zone) in the year 2011, which would be a challenge starting from the planned 6.5 per cent target for 2009.

But it is a much more daunting journey from the considerably higher deficit which now appears on the cards next year. Government plans to contain spending, both current and capital, need to be understood against this stark background.

Some commentators have been taking comfort from the fact that the Government's net debt, relative to GDP, is well below crisis level. On a worst case scenario, allowing for budget deficit overshoots in 2008 and 2009 and losses in the National Pension Reserve Fund, the net debt should be no more than 40 per cent of GDP at the end of next year. The State still enjoys an AAA rating from the credit agencies, and a 40 per cent debt ratio would not normally court any great risk of a downgrade.

But the international debt market is no longer an ATM machine for governments, even those with moderate net debt and good ratings.

Ireland has had to pay more than 1.2 percentage points per annum ahead of Germany on short-term bonds recently, and several other countries have struggled to sell government paper at all.

Total prospective issuance of government debt in Europe next year is enormous, with virtually all governments facing big fiscal deficits and bank bailout costs.

There can thus be no presumption that debt ratios can readily be run up from the 40 per cent area at the rate of an extra 9 per cent or 10 per cent per annum into the medium term.

The free-and-easy sovereign debt markets of recent years could be gone for the foreseeable future, and the balance of power in debt markets looks as if it has shifted decisively against borrowers.

Finally, these exchequer figures underline again how much things have changed since early September, when the pay deal was negotiated. Prospective inflation has collapsed, as have the Government finances and the lending capacity of the banks. The deal looks well removed from reality just three months after it was agreed.

• Colm McCarthy lectures in economics at UCD. He has been named as chairman of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes