Bringing sanity to public finances

Ad hoc policies have created unsustainable long-term spending commitments. A Medium-Term Expenditure Framework can discipline policymaking

Sri Lanka has experienced a large and persistent budget deficit, averaging over 7.7% of GDP since 1990. The deficit has been met partly by borrowing, which is why the debt-to-GDP ratio has averaged 89.1% during the same period, almost double that of our peer group. The government has attempted to close the deficit through painful and unpopular tax increases; but amid the rising cost of living, public patience for this has already worn thin.

With elections looming and the popularity of the government sinking, there is a danger they will revert to giveaways without considering the impact this will have in the longer term. Giving jobs or salary increases to state workers is a popular short-term gimmick, but involves long-term commitments: salary payments over the life of the employee, often followed by a pension. With 1,358,589 people already on the State payroll and a further 600,000 drawing pensions, this is no longer sustainable. Salaries and pensions alone consume half of government revenue.

The accumulated ills of various shortsighted measures have taken the country to the brink of default. There is an unprecedented ballooning of foreign debt repayments over 2018-22 amounting to a massive $14.9 billion. To put this in context, the current IMF facility is only $1.5 billion.

The maturing debt is too large to be repaid, so must be rolled over, which means we need to borrow to repay. In order to do so, we must maintain investor confidence. Failure to do so will lead to higher borrowing costs – something we cannot afford. Moody’s ranks Sri Lanka among the countries most exposed to an interest rate shock. Interest payments already consume around 36% of government revenue, an increase in rates will put severe pressure on the budget.

The accumulated ills of various shortsighted measures have taken the country to the brink of default. There is an unprecedented ballooning of foreign debt repayments over 2018-22 amounting to a massive $14.9 billion

Moody’s warns, “Persistently high government liquidity and external vulnerability risks continue to pressure Sri Lanka’s credit profile, and specifically measures to build reserves and smooth the profile of external payments may be insufficient to stem imminent government liquidity and balance of payments pressures starting in 2019, when large international debt repayments come due and Sri Lanka’s three-year International Monetary Fund Extended Fund Facility programme concludes.”

This is why the Finance Ministry has pushed through unpopular tax hikes and increased fuel prices. Foreign lenders will look at the country’s finances to assess its ability to repay; so in the short term, there is no sensible alternative but to collect more taxes. The real problem, however, is not tax but runaway spending; over 2000-16, total spending grew at a compounded annual rate of 12% (from Rs335,822 million to Rs2,333,883 million), with the deficit following suit (Rs119,396 million to Rs640,326 million). Foreign financing of the deficit grew from Rs495 million to Rs429,130 million in the same period. It is government spending not taxation that ultimately determines the total burden of government activity on the private sector. Although spending may be financed by borrowing or printing money (instead of taxes), all government spending is ultimately a call on resources that have alternative uses, or involves transfers from one group of society to another.

Debt is simply taxation postponed, with interest added. Money printing can tide over in the short term, but ultimately results in inflation and currency depreciation. The need, therefore, is to reign in expenditure, which must start with a proper plan.

Large businesses routinely plan for 3-5 years, but the government relies on an annual budget, which is produced by a bottom-up approach – i.e. the various departments submit their estimates of expected expenditure, which are then amended and collated centrally. Planning and policy is geared to the annual budget cycle, and little attempt is made to prioritize spending.

Planning must move away from annual budgets to a Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), three-to-five year rolling plans, the important features of which are as follows:
• Extends the timeframe of budgeting from 1 year to 3-5 years.
• Projects the future cost of existing programmes and approved policy changes (baseline).
• Establishes hard spending limits – fiscal targets (i.e. deficit or total spending).
• Establishes a procedure for proposing any new policy initiatives.
• Rolls the MTEF forward each year, adding a year at the end.

The Treasury can work backwards from revenue, assuming no changes in the tax structure and the deficit target to arrive at the overall spending limit. Matching this with projected costs of current programmes will indicate if there is space available in the budget for new policy initiatives. Fiscal space is the difference between baseline projections and the government’s spending target; if there is no space, no new programmes can be accommodated, unless some existing programmes are cut.

The overall spending limit is a ‘hard’ limit, but within the overall limit, reallocation can take place. This forces the Cabinet to consider spending priorities – where should limited resources be allocated? The Cabinet can determine soft ceilings for ministries that need to ‘win’ competitively on the basis of plans submitted.

Although spending may be financed by borrowing or printing money (instead of taxes), all government spending is ultimately a call on resources that have alternative uses, or involves transfers from one group of society to another

The Treasury needs to reward credible plans, so those that provide performance measures, specify outcomes, outputs and costs should receive more funding. Performance measures help make the case for budget allocation and enable monitoring of programmes. Performance measures are based on the following parameters:
Inputs: Measures the resources used to provide government services, such as personnel, operating expenses and capital.
Activities or output: Measures what an agency does, the number of applications processed, the number of passengers carried and kilometers of roads paved.
Efficiency: Measures the cost per unit of activity such as cost per patient, cost per student or cost per child vaccination.
Outcome: Measures how well objectives are met. These are usually the ends of government such as safety, health or educational improvement.

Expenditures must be driven by policy priorities, but disciplined by budget realities, which means sudden and unplanned announcements cannot be made. The result is greater policy predictability, a focus on outcomes, priorities and expenditure management.

Conceptually, this is simple, but implementing it in practice is a daunting task involving a lot of political negotiation (to get ministers to agree to spending limits) and administrative work in estimating future costs, revenues and measuring performance.

The trickiest political negotiation involved is in allocating the spending limit according to priorities. This exercise is the most important – with an annual incremental budget, no one is forced to question the ‘base cost.’ With a hard spending limit to be allocated among departments, questions on priorities come to the fore. The other obstacle is weak capacity within the government, both the bureaucracy and among ministers, which means that external technical support is needed to implement this, which is fortunately available through donor programmes.

2More than 16 African countries have adopted an MTEF, with Ghana and Malawi pioneering it in 1996. Since then, other countries in the region have followed. Implementing may be done in stages, starting with key spending units. In Malawi, the deficit contracted from 15% of GDP in 1994/5 to 5% by 1998/9, partly due to the MTEF. According to the World Bank (2013), by the end of 2008, more than two-thirds of all countries had adopted an MTEF. To work, the MTEF must become the government’s budget process and control the details of spending. Expenditure limits are agreed to by incoming governments giving intra-party policy consistency.

Properly planned expenditure means little need for periodic, ad hoc adjustments to taxes, which are witnessed at every budget, and even in between budgets through gazette notifications. Unexpected tax changes wreck havoc with the plans of businesses and households alike. Greater visibility will increase overall levels of confidence among lenders and investors.

When an MTEF is implemented well, public expenditure is limited by the availability of resources, budget allocations reflect spending priorities, and public goods and services are delivered cost-effectively. MTEFs, therefore, offer the prospect of achieving the three high-level objectives of public expenditure management: aggregate fiscal discipline, allocative efficiency and technical efficiency. Reaching this is an incremental process, but with good technical support, it is possible. The earlier this is adopted, the better.