Economics 17/11/10: The road we traveled

Amidst this crisis, it is worth taking a look back at the road that we have traveled on our way to the current predicament. It is fashionable today to make claims that the past – the recent past in fact – has been a place of greater fiscal responsibility, the age of ‘sustainable’ public finances. But is the claim true? Have lost our way all of a sudden around 2005-2007, or have we always been traveling along the same route.

Here are few charts looking back to 1983…
In absolute levels terms, spending and tax receipts have clearly grown dramatically over the years. These are nominal figures, of course. But notice that total expenditure line almost invariably exceeds total receipts levels. The chart also shows pretty dramatic changes that took place since 2007.

Now, let’s take a look at the decomposition of the Exchequer balance sheet:
Clearly, gross current spending has been a core of the overall Exchequer financing. The most dramatic departure from ‘investment’ focus toward current spending focus took place around the turn of the century. Looking at the comparatives across the shares of GNP taken up by capital and current spending shows this even more dramatically. If during 1985-2000 period current expenditure declined as a share of GNP, capital spending first fell (through 1988) then stagnated (through 1997), and then rose through 2002. Capital spending stagnated in the boom years of 2003-2007 and then rose again (due to contraction in GNP) through 2009. However, from 2006 through today, current spending went through the roof.

Another interesting feature of the chart above is that during the current crisis there was not a single year when the current expenditure declined – either in terms of absolute level of spending or in terms of spending relative to GNP.

Total government spending both in levels and as a share of GNP is expected to fall this year for the first time since the beginning of the crisis. This, of course, is driven solely by the decline in capital spending, as charts above indicate.

Now, let us plot primary Exchequer balances – the difference between the total receipts and expenditure.
In broad terms, over the long run, Irish Exchequer has been historically on a non-sustainable path. In only 3 years since 1983 did our total receipts cover total expenditure: 1999, 2000 and 2006.

It is worth noting that we are, despite what Minister Lenihan says, firmly back into the 1980s territory:

  • Our current expenditure will stand around 48.7% of GNP this year – a level consistent with 1986-1987 average
  • Our capital expenditure as the share of GNP is now 5.7% – the level also attained in 1986
  • Our total government expenditure stands at 54.4% this year – the level close to the one last seen in 1986 (54.7%)
  • In 2008 our balance was -9.8% which was between 1986 and 1987 levels of balance
  • In 2009-2010 we have posted worse deficits than in any other year recorded in the abvoe charts.

So what about good cop – bad cop game of blame going across the Dail isles?
It turns out that on average annual basis, Brian Cowen leads the recent history team of profligate Taoisigh with a whopping (albeit obviously crisis-related) average annual shortfall of €26.5bn so far. Together – Bertie & Cowen come distant second with €5.5bn in annual shortfalls. But overall, there is not a single Toiseach in the modern history of Ireland who managed to balance the books at the primary level. Hardly a sign of any fiscal ‘golden age’ in the past.