Former Economics Editor of the NZ Herald

Brian Fallow: Asset sales a plug for $6b hole

Finance Minister Bill English. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Finance Minister Bill English. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The government is counting on the proceeds of asset sales to plug a $6 billion hole which has opened in its accounts over the past three months.

The Treasury now reckons growth this year will be significantly weaker than it thought when it prepared the Pre-election Economic and Fiscal Update. It blames Europe.

But the effect is a smaller tax base leading to a lower revenue track and a slightly higher expenditure track, as unemployment will decline more slowly.

It means bigger deficits in the next three years and smaller surpluses the two years after that.

The cumulative effect is $5.6 billion less on the Government's bottom line over the next five years. All else being equal that would mean a corresponding rise in its debt compared with pre-election forecasts.

Happily, from the standpoint of the net debt outlook, it can now factor in proceeds from selling down the Crown's stake in the three state-owned electricity generators, Air New Zealand and Solid Energy. That is $6 billion, give or take a billion.

It serves to keep the Government's net debt, measured against the size of the economy, under the 30 per cent level, which it seems to see as some kind of virtual electric fence in terms of its fiscal credibility in the eyes of the ratings agencies and the financial markets.

Indeed that is one of the Government's main reasons for going ahead with the mixed-ownership model, Finance Minister Bill English said.

The trouble is, the markets are more focused on how much we collectively owe - households, businesses and Government - to the rest of the world. Right now that is $148 billion, net of New Zealand assets abroad. At 73 per cent of GDP it is high by international standards.

On yesterday's forecasts the level of debt will be back to growing faster than the economy which has to fund it by 2014.

Unfortunately, the sale of assets by one set of New Zealanders (all of us) to another, smaller set of New Zealanders will not do anything to increase national savings or reduce the external debt. But it will make the Finance Minister's job easier.

- NZ Herald

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Former Economics Editor of the NZ Herald

Brian Fallow is a former economics editor for the New Zealand Herald. A Southlander happily transplanted to Wellington, he has been a journalist since 1984 and has covered the economy and related areas of public policy for the Herald since 1995. Why the economy? Because it is where we all live and because the forces at work in it can really mess up people's lives if we are not careful.

Read more by Brian Fallow

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