Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the
round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're
not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify
them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change
things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the
crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that
they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs
US computer engineer & industrialist (1955 - 2011)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

How bad is Newfoundland's Budget Crisis?

Newfoundland and Labrador is in the "mother of all" budgetary crisis. It is not a pretty picture. For those that don't quite get all the government lingo: a deficit is the annual loss caused by spending more than you bring in a fiscal year; the debt is the accumulation of all the money borrowed to finance those accumulated deficits over the years; operating budget is the base cost of running government operations in a year; capital budget is the cost of building facilities in a given year; and gross debt is the amount of all debt the government owes and must pay back. That's a bit of a simplification, but it does the trick.

Back when the 2015-2016 budget was crafted, the government projected $6,659,952 (billion) in operating expenses and $1,143,743 (billion) in capital expenses, for a total of  roughly $7.8 billion in expenditures. To fund those expenditures the government projected oil revenue to be $1,157,671 billion based on a base price of $62 (US) a barrel for Brent Crude. With oil at that level, the government predicted a $1 billion deficit. As a result of the recent election defeat of the government, a new deficit figure of $1.8 billion was released. In other words, the new Liberal government is saying the province has lost approximately $700 million in revenue.

The problem is things are much worse economically then they were at budget time. Oil has hovered at roughly $40-45 a barrel for most of the fiscal year, and has been trending downward (at $37.70 now). Yet, despite the collapse of the province's largest single contributor to revenues, the government has done...nothing. Here is a very illuminating example:

2013/2013 - oil revenue   $2.25 billion      Total government spending -   $7.6 billion

2015-2016 - oil revenue  $1.2 billion         Total government spending-    $7.8 billion

If that set of numbers shocks, well, it should. Now, that figure for oil revenue above was based on $62 a barrel. Just shaving off approximately 30% from that number for oil's actual prices, and we are down approximately $360 million - which leaves oil revenue for this fiscal year closer to $800 million. You have to travel back to the year 2007 to find a time when oil revenue was this low in recent history. In that year, oil was budgeted to bring in $996.5 million. The kicker is this: total budgeted spending for that year, including operating and capital, was $5.2 billion - $2.6 billion less than what is being spent today.

All of this takes on a pretty ugly picture when you consider that debt servicing charges (interest,etc on our debt) was budgeted to be $652 million this year alone. Furthermore, our combined capital and operational gross debt is now $13.9 billion. That is only $1 billion less than the perilous period of 1997-98.

So what can be done? Or, what has to be done? Both nothing and everything. The nothing portion is capital expenditures. The province can no longer afford any capital expenditures. Sound radical? Consider that capital expenditures have been in the $1.1 billion range for a few years now. That's no longer doable. That means: no new hospital for Corner Brook (or anywhere else); no new Waterford mental health facility; no new penitentiary; etc. In other words, any election promises that were related to these projects are out - they were never honest in the first place.

Raising taxes of all kinds and types will be the feature of the next budget. Sin taxes. Income taxes, Taxes on your taxes. You get the idea. However, even taxing all these areas, the government can only pray to come up with maybe $150 million, and that would mean huge personal income tax increases. After all, Ball just vetoed increasing the HST by 2%, which could have meant about $150 million for the provincial coffers. Still, that would have been a drop in the bucket for what's necessary to keep this government where its at.  Cutting civil service jobs has been ruled out by the Liberals. Salaries and benefits of provincial employees accounted for about $905 million in this year's budget. The salaries in the health sector and education sector are administered by the respective authorities. The word is they account for about 75% of the $4 billion that the province issues in grants to the authorities to run their health/education organizations.

It has to be a tempting, if not an absolute necessity, to review these employee expenses. The civil service is way too large for a province this size. The Liberals claim they will reduce it by attrition - which is a fancy way of saying once people retire they will eliminate those positions from the province's structure. Sounds great in the ideal world, but the budget crisis needs immediate heart surgery, not rehab. It can't wait that long.

Muskrat Falls is another one that must be looked at. The government has spent its part on the project already (not including over runs), so that $3 billion is gone from general revenues. However, Nalcor is holding $5 billion in investment accounts that it borrowed under the Federal Loan Guarantee. As far as I know that $5 billion hasn't been accessed yet. The province could cancel the Muskrat Falls project, work a deal with their new buddies in Ottawa to return the funds while avoiding default, and the gross debt of the province would shrink to about $8.8 billion. Such a move would dramatically improve the province's long term economic health, and perhaps forestall the otherwise inevitable credit downgrades coming our way. In addition, should Nalcor lose the current Quebec court case (now waiting for the Judge's decision as it was heard in October) Muskrat Falls annual revenue generation will drop by approximately 80% require a tripling of power bills to allow the project to break even year after year. All in all, Muskrat Falls needs to be the first victim of the financial sanity axe.

In summary, Dwight Ball is on the record as not wanting to harm the economy by instigating drastic tax hikes or mass layoffs. He's on the record as not wanting to shut down the Muskrat Falls project (he wants to "manage it better"). He's on the record for assisting iron ore companies to buy out other iron ore companies in Labrador. All these things are just pure fantasy. Complete non-sense. The truth is, bonding agencies will force the government to cut its spending - drastically. Banks will likely do the same. Newfoundland and Labrador was completely mismanaged during the years when oil revenues to the province numbered in the billions. Now, that luxury, as stupid as it was, is no longer available to politicians. Now the chickens have come home to roost. It's simple math. How bad is Newfoundland's budget crisis? It's systemic and it's catastrophic. That's how bad it is.


  1. Ok It's bad. So what are we going to do, to fix the matter? What can we do to insure this will not repeat, like it does over the decades? How can we get back any of the funds. Personally NL should take the $5B from Nalcor and put it on the debt and go after all the Players that set up the scam, and robbed us of the billions.

  2. Brad, we share an interest in justice for Don Dunphy. Do you think that the promised public inquiry into his shooting could fall to the axe of budget restraint?

    1. No I don't. The inquiry will happen. I wouldn't worry too much about that :)


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