When Fiscal Conservatism can Actually Do Better
The level of prices in Morocco is perhaps the most important economic issue that can rally Moroccans around; Debt doesn’t seem to matter much, nor does the deficit. Even taxes do not seem to matter much. Since no particular (and reliable) polls are being carried out, I take it media coverage of these issues speaks for itself: public opinion does not seem to care about public debt and deficit, and public policy ensures level of prices are low, a good indicator of how priorities are ranked with a relatively popular government: stabilize prices at all costs.
By now, the major aspects of the new 2012 Budget have been made public: a big push in social sectors, education, health, housing and industrial relations, not to mention the appropriation for the Compensation Fund – around 40 Billion dirhams, and the deficit does not seem to be a priority, the trade-off in public debt and fiscal receipts has been pretty clear and favour immediate stabilization. It seems to me – but I might be mistaken- there is no Budget Policy for the next 5 years, only a year-to-year management of public finances. Sure, CST funds and Budget-allocated Public investment do contribute one way or the other to some long-term vision, but I doubt the government has fully endorsed, or even grasped the implications of, the spirit of past investment plans, like Plan Maroc Vert, Haleutis or the High-Speed train.
Though the government has pledged to spend its way to stabilize prices, it seems they have already overlooked the impact of their policies on future inflation as well as on the prospects of growth itself. Inflation is going to be a problem later on, perhaps sooner than what they might expect; so far, latest reports on inflation (core and total) state the following:
Selon le Haut commissariat au plan (HCP), l’Indice des prix à la consommation (IPC) a enregistré une hausse mensuelle de 0,2% en janvier 2012, après le recul de 0,5% observé en décembre dernier. Cette évolution reflète principalement l’accroissement des prix des produits alimentaires volatils de 0,9% après les baisses successives enregistrées durant les trois mois précédents. La progression des prix de cette catégorie tient à celle des prix des volailles et lapin et des légumes frais de 1,3% et 2,1% respectivement, qui a plus que compensé la baisse des prix des poissons et des fruits. Pour leur part, les prix des produits réglementés ont connu une légère hausse de 0,1%. Abstraction faite des prix des produits volatils et de ceux réglementés, l’inflation sous-jacente de Bank Al-Maghrib (BAM) ressort en hausse de 0,1% après 0,2% le mois précédent.
En glissement annuel, l’inflation s’est établie à 0,9% en janvier, inchangée par rapport à décembre 2011. Cette évolution résulte essentiellement de la poursuite de la baisse des prix des produits alimentaires volatils (-1,3% au lieu de -1,4%). Pour sa part, l’inflation sous-jacente est ressortie à 1,6%, après 1,7% en décembre.
The efforts put in stabilizing prices have brought overall inflation down, it is effectively a deflation of sorts: food prices are notoriously volatile, and the methodology makes sure they are not taken into account in core inflation computation. Bank Al Maghrib puts the 2012 trend for core inflation at 1.6%; yet HCP projects:
Concernant l’évolution de l’inflation, l’accélération attendue de la demande intérieure, associée à la persistance de la hausse des prix à l’importation, exercerait, en dépit du niveau élevé des dépenses de compensation, une légère pression sur les prix intérieurs.
L’inflation, mesurée par le prix implicite du PIB, passerait de 1,6% en 2011 à 2,5% en 2012.
that is to say, GDP deflator will rise moderately above BKAM’s core inflation 2%, which will amount to the same thing, since the last decade observed a 1.9% average GDP Deflator inflation rate, and BKAM policy rates haven’t change significantly on that period, and were much more responsive to GDP deflator fluctuations than they have been to regular ICV/IPC inflation rate. And so by postponing inflation shocks with subsidies, the budget only makes it harder to sustain future, compounded inflationary pressures that will come mainly from the crowding-out effect.
Bank Al Maghrib has only two alternatives: either support government policy and intervene a lot more on monetary markets to supplement flailing M3 and make up for the effect of government bond issues on available liquidities: as of late February 2012, the amount of liquidities BKAM serves amounted on average to 29.75 Bn dirhams, up to 238Bn since January 2012. up from 67Bn served last year at the same time by the Central Bank, an average intervention of a little less of 10Bn.
My point is, government expenditure to stabilize prices will backfire, and I argue the price to pay for an inflation freeze on food prices is not worth it, since it also takes deviates liquidities from potential growth, and it pressures the Central Bank in going in with a hike in interest rates to sustain its other equally important target: sustain the Dirham’s value and manage foreign currency reserves.
Since I am getting more and more alarmist about this whole business, how come no major rating agency has produced a document about it so far? How come S&P didn’t change its outlook on Morocco? Last time they published any Moroccan-related news was July 2011, and the Outlook was Stable – and thus unlikely to change. So from a financial standpoint, the debt is manageable, not because Morocco’s economic prospects are going to improve, but because as far as its capabilities to mobilize foreign resources go, Morocco can count on generous creditors. And there goes the historic lesson: Morocco got into trouble in the early 1980s because it has borrowed too much from abroad. Foreign debt now stands at around 20% GDP; perhaps that level is considered to be sustainable; as long as the dices roll, take your chances, domestic debt doesn’t matter, does it?
Why fiscal conservatism, then?
Well, why not? It’s all a matter of trade-off, that is, a political decision that favours delaying deficit reduction and bringing debt under control because it values immediate price stability. I guess a 40Bn expenditure in compensation fund that benefits at least 75% to the top 20% affluent households. A subsidy that is likely to worsen trade deficit and weaken the level of foreign reserves accordingly. It looks as though as long as Morocco is assured of generous foreign financing -from the Gulf or the EU- its public finances aren’t much of a problem. On the other hand, if the assumption the business cycle has reached its peak holds, then it is dangerous to pursue the foreign debt path; it looks as though Real Estate is likely to be the main growth booster, and foreign, ‘hot money’ inflows do not mix well with tangible asset acquisition.
Budget rebalancing means the following: yes, overall inflation will rise moderately within the 2% BKAM target rate, and probably so would unemployment, but not above the 9% limit; but capping PSBR and spending would allow available liquidities to be channelled into private expenditure, thus boosting economic growth. Simultaneously, fiscal policy has to be rebalanced in favour of less indirect taxes and broader tax base; this means many of the existing loopholes, temporary and permanent exemptions and moratorium would be closed or ended, or at least directed in favour of actual contributors to growth: small and innovative businesses, agricultural cooperatives, higher education and research. What this government is doing is basically the worse of two worlds: social spending with no immediate repercussions on growth (domestic expenditure has a lower contribution to growth when heavily subsidized, and improving the livelihoods of 400,000 public servants out of a workforce of 11,8 Million people isn’t really going to make it happen) rolling up large deficits and mounting debt that crowd out liquidities.