Monday 23 November 2009

More neo-liberalism or an alternative?

The just released Treasury report aimed at influencing the National government advocates a new round of neo-liberalism: cuts to government spending, tax reform (including raising GST and lowering company tax), privatisations of state-owned enterprises, etc. Rather than "closing income gaps" it will of course increase them, and will most likely worsen the economy. A very different prescription from the CTU's Alternative Economic Strategy. Is there potential for two opposing ideological and political responses to the economic crisis to square off against each other, not just on paper, but in the real world?
Tax reform needed to jump-start economy by Brian Fellow from NZ Herald 23 November 2009 Far-reaching reform of the tax system and a much tougher approach to Government spending than the Budget foreshadowed will be necessary if New Zealand is to narrow the income gap with Australia and other developed countries, the Treasury says. The economy is seriously under-performing, it says in a report to ministers titled "Getting Started on Closing the Income Gaps". Both Government and private consumption has run well ahead of income, while business investment has been relatively modest. Debt levels are high, and land and house prices probably unsustainable. The Budget was underpinned by an expectation that the recession would trigger a process of rebalancing which would put the economy on a more sustainable path, but that is not panning out. Instead of the expected 25 per cent fall in real house prices, they are heading back above their 2007 peaks, aided by strong net immigration. The reorientation of the economy away from consumption towards production and exports is likely to be slower and weaker than had been hoped and that would mean overseas debt reaching even higher levels than those the Budget had forecast (over 100 per cent of GDP) and which the Treasury doubts are sustainable. "At best our current medium-term economic prospects appear to be fragile, unbalanced growth. There is little in the current policy mix that would make a material difference in terms of closing the income gap." What would, the Treasury argues, is a combination of ambitious tax reform and "front-loaded fiscal consolidation" - code for belt-tightening in Government spending that goes well beyond the $1.1 billion cap on new spending adopted in this year's Budget. "You have the opportunity for once-in-a-generation reorientation of the tax system," it told ministers. "If the opportunity is embraced, far-reaching tax reform could make a powerful contribution to jump-starting a process that, over a decade or two, could close the income gaps." The less ambitious the approach to other taxes like GST, land tax and capital gains tax, the harder would be the required choices about where to concentrate income tax reductions. Structural reform could not begin and end with tax, however. Also in the Treasury's sights are privatisation of state-owned enterprises, pricing not only carbon emissions but water, and a greater role for external capital in the dairy and meat processing sectors. Since 2002, New Zealand has had the fifth-highest rate of increase in Government spending in the OECD. The report is clearly talking about a significantly more demanding track than the Budget, which envisaged a decade of deficits even with a much lower cap on new spending.Significant and well-foreshadowed cuts in Government expenditure would limit the need for official cash rate increases by the Reserve Bank, it says, which in turn would mean less pressure, all else equal, on the exchange rate. The Budget had relied on fiscal drag - the process whereby inflation pushes people into higher tax brackets - to reduce deficits over time. "Fiscal drag sounds innocuous. In fact it would mean that by 2022/23 the average wage earner would be paying the top marginal tax rate." The Budget's priorities had been supporting the demand side of the economy through a recession, while averting a credit rating downgrade. "Having dealt with that initial situation, some more significant adjustment is now warranted." A combination of spending cuts and tax reform, the report says, could deliver an economic scenario which looked like this: Materially weaker consumption relative to income and lower house prices, materially stronger investment and employment in the export sector, a materially lower exchange rate for several years, interest rates and a cost of capital more in line with international norms and a materially stronger fiscal position with scope for tax cuts in the future.

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