Government books show medium to long-term pain

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Analysis – It says everything that the pre-election economic and fiscal update’s (PREFU) most positive statement was “less negative in the near term.”

Wallet with no money.

Photo: 123RF

The opening of the government’s books ahead of the 17 October vote has laid out a set of forecasts for an economy set to stay in intensive care for a prolonged period.

“Despite a less negative near-term outlook, the medium-term outlook has deteriorated owing to a deterioration in the global economic outlook, and to the fact that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are now expected to be more persistent,” the Treasury said.

The economy’s emergence from lockdown sooner than expected and the strength of consumer and business activity when restrictions were lifted can take the credit for the Treasury scaling back its budget forecasts for the pandemic’s immediate impact.

The PREFU showed a budget deficit of $23.4 billion for the year ended June, while the level of debt is marginally better at 27.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

But that seems to be the best of it, and whichever party or coalition of parties forms the next government the Treasury predicts four hard years of financial slog with large deficits, reduced income, high spending, and hefty borrowing.

The outlook remains highly conditional on how the Covid-19 pandemic evolves, and because of the big uncertainties, the Treasury put up three alternative Covid-related scenarios – bad, badder, baddest – but the Treasury forecasts, often derided in the past for their cheery optimism, do not look out of place in an uncertain world.

Average annual growth of 2.8 percent over the next four years, unemployment peaking at 7.7 percent next year and only slowly recovering.

The government’s relief measures such as wage subsidies, and business loans took the initial sting out of the pandemic, but with only $14b left in the Covid-relief fund being kept in reserve for any serious re-emergence of the virus, the margins are thin.

It’s little comfort, but New Zealand may be able to look around the world and say – for now at least – ‘we’re in better shape’ than most major developed economies.

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