Recession in the distorting mirror of the state budget
Governor of Eesti Pank
The sustainability of state financing is measured in Europe by the structural fiscal balance, which indicates what the budget balance would be if it were not affected by the cyclical position of the economy or one-off factors. When the economy is growing fast, a nominal surplus is needed for the budget to be at least in balance structurally, and the opposite also applies, so when the economy is temporarily operating below its long-term growth potential, the nominal fiscal position is worse than the structural position. Structural budget balance or a small surplus is necessary so that the public finances would remain good over the longer term and the general government debt would not grow. The Estonian government debt is the smallest in Europe and the surplus targeted in the budget strategy is more than the minimum required by the European Union. However, both the previous and the current governments have relaxed the fiscal targets. In the latest budget strategy for 2015-2018 set by the new government, the government target is a structural budget surplus of 0.2% of gross domestic product (GDP). A year ago the previous strategy aimed for a surplus of 1.0%.
The structural position planned in Estonia's national budget strategy meets the criteria observed by the European Commission, but whether the targets that have been set are actually fulfilled is another question altogether. The main debate is around the assessment of the current and future cyclical position of the economy. Both the European Commission and the Estonian government measure the economic cycle using the GDP gap, which shows how far GDP is above or below its potential, or its long-term capacity for growth. Measuring the current GDP gap is an inexact science and estimates only prove their accuracy during the subsequent years as more statistical data become available. This means that discrepancies can ensue in estimates of the structural budget position and in opinions on government activity, and debate can arise.
Measuring the economic cycle and estimating the cyclical effects on the budget becomes even more complicated if the structure of the economy is changing at the same time, and this has been the case with the Estonian economy recently. Economic growth has slowed to close to zero and GDP actually shrank at the start of this year, but wages and household consumption increased rapidly at the same time because of the decline in the population, emigration and structural unemployment. Some three quarters of government revenues comes from taxes on labour and consumption, and the sharp drop in economic growth did not directly affect that, so revenues to the state budget have increased by substantially more than the general cyclical position of the economy would suggest.
It is also important to be quite careful in forecasting the structural budget revenues, as they largely dictate the level of expenditure that the government will be able to sustain over the longer term. The most recent forecast from Eesti Pank expects the cyclical effect on the fiscal position to turn positive next year already, though the economy as a whole will remain below its potential. This means that tax revenues are already close to balance and will pass that point next year. By this interpretation of the cycle the state should limit expenditure growth to the same degree and put some of the tax revenues into the reserves. If the estimates of the economic cycle that are based on a negative GDP gap are used as a guide now, the consequence could be that the budget later turns out to have remained in structural deficit and the fiscal targets set in law prove to be unattainable. In the long run this could create problems of fiscal sustainability as the reserves built up in the good times prove insufficient to finance the deficit through more difficult times. The government has three options in that case. The first is to increase the general government debt and leave some of the costs to future generations; the second is to cut spending; and the third is to raise income, which generally means increasing the tax burden.