As we all know, Ireland’s public finances must meet specific EU and domestic fiscal rules on annual deficits, expenditure growth and debt reduction. Fiscal space refers to the projected or forecast amount of money available to the Government over a period of time for extra spending and/or tax reductions while ensuring that the overall fiscal rules are met. In the bad old days of cutbacks the relevant and opposite phrase was fiscal consolidation which meant the amount of expenditure reduction and/or tax increases needed to reduce borrowing over a particular period. The amount, probability and use of the available fiscal space were major issues in the recent general election.

In the election discussion the fiscal space refers to the five years from 2017 to 2021. Most of the projected fiscal space money occurs later in the period. Of the much quoted total figure of €8.6 billion, €5.7 billion or 66% arises in 2020 and 2021. Only €0.6 billion is in 2017 and €1.1b is in 2018. The 2019 level is €1.3 billion. We will have to wait a while for most of the fiscal space goodies. If the EU changes, as expected, our annual borrowing or deficit rule we will have another €1.5 billion which will arise in 2019.

The fiscal space money is not certain. It is not sitting in a bank waiting to be withdrawn. It depends on the achievement of solid economic and employment growth over the next five years. If the economy performs weaker than forecast there will be less fiscal space money available. The fiscal space calculation is based on an assumption of GDP growth of 3.5% in 2017 and around 3% for each of 2018 to 2021.

So, the fiscal space is a forecast amount of money and therefore uncertain; it depends on reasonable economic growth and other economic performance up to 2021. Even if the forecast turns out to be correct, the bulk of the fiscal space will arrive in 2020 and 2021 with much less in 2017 and 2018.

There are several different concepts, definitions and estimates of the fiscal space ranging from €14.2 billion to €3.2 billion which cause problems for a wide understanding of the issue.. This range gives space for much argument as was seen in the election campaign. All of the estimates are valid methodologically but are based on different interpretations, inclusions/exclusions and assumptions.

The €8.6 billion estimate is based on achieving a deficit of 0% but, as mentioned, there is a strong likelihood that we will be allowed a deficit of 0.5% by the EU, instead of 0%. This would give us another €1.5 billion of fiscal space and would arise in 2019. Therefore the fiscal space could be €8.6 billion plus €1.5 billion, or the €10.1 billion which appears, for example, in the FG election economic plan.

The original €8.6 billion was estimated by the department of finance and details are in tables A.8 and A.9 of the 2016 Economic and Fiscal Outlook. To arrive at the figure the department estimated the requirements to meet the fiscal rules between 2017 and 2021 based on our projected economic performance. It then calculated the projected actual public financial situation based on the current level of public services, salaries, social welfare payments and other expenditures and tax revenues. The difference between the two is the fiscal space or the amount of money available to use in expenditure (above the current level) and tax reductions and still be compliant with the fiscal rules.

This exercise resulted in what is called the gross fiscal space of €10.9 billion but this figure assumed that income tax bands would be adjusted in line with inflation. As such an adjustment is unlikely, there would be additional tax revenues flowing to the exchequer of €1.8 billion. Adding this to the €10.9 billion we get €12.7 billion of adjusted gross fiscal space. If we add on the €1.5 billion from the possible change in the level of the deficit the total is €14.2 billion. Excluding this reduced deficit impact we are at €12.7 billion.

But, the government could not spend all of this €12.7 (or €14.2 billion) billion on, for example, new teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers and guards or reduce taxation by €12.7 (or €14.2) billion because there are some definite or committed other expenditures over the 2017 to 2021 period. These include capital investment projects, the Lansdowne Rd pay deal and the demographic effect of more users of service through population growth and aging. There is also a plus side in that the number claiming unemployment payments will decrease. The department of finance estimates that €4.3 billion should be taken from the gross space of €12.7 billion, to cover the capital item, Lansdowne Rd and demographic influences to give the net fiscal space of €8.6 billion. You will note that the actual figure is €8.4 billion but this  deifference is due to rounding the totals.

Hence, we have our famous €8.6 billion. It includes an estimate for future demographic pressures and other known expenditure commitments. However, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council thinks that the €4.3 billion adjustment to the gross fiscal space is too low and that the €8.6 billion (or €10.1 billion if the deficit is changed to 0.5%) gives a wrong and exaggerated picture of the additional money the government will have to allocate over the next five years. The IFAC agrees with the figures up to this point and with the estimate of gross and net fiscal space (actually the IFAC estimates it to be €8.9 billion versus the €8.6 billion) but not with the implication that the money is available for new measures. The IFAC wants to identify the cost of providing the current level of services over the five year period including higher cost from inflation, likely increased salaries after Lansdowne Rd for 2019 to 2021 and increased social welfare payments. In addition, the IFAC believes the demographic adjustment done by the Department of Finance is too low.

Starting from the department of finance’s €8.6 billion net fiscal space which already incorporates a demographic adjustment, the IFAC suggests that another €1.5 billion should be allocated to cope with demographic pressure. The IFAC estimates that the cost of providing the present level of services and expenditure will increase by €4.2 billion between 2017 and 2021 through pay and social welfare increases and price inflation. Consequently, the IFAC estimates that the €8.6 billion (or €8.9 billion as IFAC estimates) should be further reduced by €1.5 billion and €4.2 billion to give an available level of resources of €3.2 billion. When the likely future cost of current services, salaries and social welfare payments are taken into account, the IFAC says there is €3.2 billion instead of €8.6 billion (or €4.7 billion instead of €10.1 billion) net fiscal space remaining for new measures.

The magnitude of dealing with likely increases in wages and social payments is substantial. Keeping pace with the GDP deflator measure of inflation of 1.2% per year would add about €1.7 billion to the social payments total between 2017 and 2021.  The same increase for wages and salaries in 2019 to 2021 would add about €800 million. Indexing the cost of government purchases would add about €600 million in the 2017 to 2021 period. These three alone on the above estimates would add €3.1 billion to the future cost of the current level of services and reduce the amount of fiscal space available for new services and tax reductions, except, of course, that higher social welfare payments, which could also be defined as a new measure, are accounted for. Higher interest payments and higher capital costs would further add to the cost of the present level of expenditure and services.

Some politicians in the election campaign have pointed out that the €8.6 billion (or €10.1 billion) figure includes an allowance for demographic effects. However, as noted, the IFAC believes that the department of finance demographic adjustment is insufficient and should be increased.

The point was also made by various politicians that the IFAC approach prejudges government decisions on wage deals and social payment increases and that these should be part of how the bigger estimate of fiscal space should be used and not excluded from the fiscal space total which is available for decision-making. This is a reasonable position. The IFAC concern is that a failure to make these costs explicit gives an exaggerated impression of the available new financial resources for tax reductions and new spending measures. For example, the FF economic plan allocated €4.76 billion of the available fiscal space for current services but this includes a sum for higher social welfare payments.

The FG economic plan allocated €4.2 billion of fiscal space for current services and notes (page 9) that this allocation includes…”provisions for sensible pay increases,….targeted welfare improvements and for other pressures (over and above a provision for addressing demographic costs)” (presumably the department of finance demographic provision). It was also argued that indexing the cost of goods and services to inflation is not appropriate because more effective procurement would reduce costs.

The IFAC figure of €3.2 billion is not directly comparable to the FG and FF figures of €8.6 billion because the FG and FF figures expect the social welfare increases to come from their €8.6 billion figures  while the IFAC has already excluded this from the fiscal space. However, neither FF nor FG included a provision for additional demographic costs compared to the department of finance’s estimate.

However, it must be remembered that there are no fiscal space monies available now. It depends on future economic growth and will be quite limited in the early years of the new government. In addition, the large amounts which are being mentioned relate to a five year period.

Anthony Foley is Senior Lecturer in Economics in DCU Business School, and lectures on the Executive MBA Programme.

If you’re interested in undertaking a part-time Executive MBA, we’re holding an open evening on March 31st 2016. Details here.

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