During the past two months, public debate in Puerto Rico has focused mostly on the impact of specific fiscal adjustment measures proposed by the Fiscal Control Board (“FCB”) in its January 18 letter to Governor Roselló and by the Rosselló administration in its February 28 Fiscal Plan.
For example, much has been said about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of cutting $300 million from the budget of the University of Puerto Rico. This discussion while important, has diverted attention away from the aggregate impact that fiscal adjustments such as those proposed both by the FCB and the administration would have on the economy.
From the start it should be clear that it will be very difficult for Puerto Rico to avoid austerity measures: the government is expected to incur in a primary deficit (before debt service) over the next few years and the island can neither devalue its currency nor access short term financing.
This does not mean that nothing can be done to mitigate the negative impact of austerity measures. Some combinations of budget cuts and tax increases have a less adverse impact on the economy when compared to others, depending on their impact on aggregate demand.
Second, PROMESA does not require that the fiscal adjustment be implemented in two years. If it were implemented over a three to five year period, the structural reforms the government is proposing would have adequate time to have a positive effect on the economy. Then fiscal adjustment measures could be implemented incrementally, once the economy starts growing again.
Third, declaring an absolute moratorium on all public debt service could significantly increase the government’s liquidity. These funds would be used to finance short-term deficiencies while the fiscal adjustment and the structural reforms are implemented.
That being said, if the road of fiscal austerity is inevitable, then both the FCB and the government have a moral obligation to clearly explain the adverse effect that their proposals will have on the overall economy.
In its January 18 letter, the FCB proposed an adjustment of $4.5 billion over a two- year fiscal period. That adjustment is equivalent to 6.4% of the Gross National Product (GNP) estimated for fiscal year 2017.
It is important to note that a fiscal adjustment of $1 billion has both a fiscal and an economic impact in excess of $1 billion. On the fiscal side, this negative feedback loop is due, for example, to the fact that a reduction in the salaries or benefits of public employees reduces their disposable income available for consumption and this has a negative effect on the government’s revenues. In addition, taxpayers modify their economic activity in response to changes in public policy.
Dr. Brad Setser, a former United States Treasury official who worked on matters related to Puerto Rico and is currently with the Council on Foreign Relations, estimated in a blog recently published in CFR.org, that this impact in Puerto Rico to be in the order of 20%. This means that an adjustment of $4.5 billion will have a fiscal impact of $5.4 billion or close to 7.7% of the GNP.
On the economic side, we must adjust the amount of the proposed fiscal consolidation using a fiscal multiplier to calculate the total impact of the fiscal consolidation on the economy as a whole. In general terms, the fiscal multiplier is an estimate of the (negative or positive) effect that a change in government spending has on national income (the GNP).
The economic literature on how to calculate a fiscal multiplier is extensive. For discussion purposes, we use estimates from three different sources. First, the International Monetary Fund (“IMF”) uses a fiscal multiplier of approximately 1.5. This means that a reduction in government spending of 1% of GNP will produce a reduction of 1.5% on the GNP.
A more recent investigation by Christopher House, Christian Proebsting and Linda Tesar (“HPT”) published in the website of the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER Working Paper No. 23,147) estimates the fiscal multiplier in 2 for European countries that belong to a monetary union.
Finally, Alan J. Auerbach and Yuriy Gorodnichenko, both from the University of California—Berkeley, estimate that the multiplier for economies in recession is even larger, between 2.24 and 2.48. Here we use a simple average of 2.36.
We can then estimate (without pretension of having absolute certainty) that the adjustment proposed by the FCB could result in a reduction of 11.5% of GNP using the IMF’s multiplier, 15.4% applying HPT’s multiplier, and up to 18.2% using Auerbach’s estimate—this in an economy that has already contracted about 14% since 2006.
The Fiscal Plan presented by the Administration suggests a smaller fiscal adjustment— $3.5 billion over a two-year fiscal period, equivalent to 5% of GNP—because it assumes a more optimistic baseline scenario.
This adjustment, however, includes $1 billion from the extension of the Act 154 excise tax. While this tax temporarily affects the cash flow of the companies subject to it, it does not have an adverse impact on the local economy (it is not a “fiscal drag”) since it is imposed only on sales made by certain foreign companies with operations in Puerto Rico to their offshore affiliates. This means we have to subtract that amount from the suggested fiscal adjustment, which then decreases to $2.5 billion.
As we explained before, this figure has to be increased by 20% in order to take into account the negative fiscal feedback loop. This means that an adjustment of $2.5 billion will have a fiscal impact of $ 3 billion or 4.3% of the GNP. If we use the same fiscal multipliers, we can conclude that the aggregate adverse economic impact of the adjustment proposed by the administration could fluctuate between 6.5%, 8.6% and 10.1% of GNP. This is a smaller negative impact relative to the adjustment suggested by the FCB but still a devastating one for such a weak economy as Puerto Rico’s.
The Fiscal Plan does not describe the economic model that was used to estimate the impact of the policies proposed. However, it seems to us, given the preceding analysis, that the total adverse impact the fiscal adjustment would have on the economy was not explicitly incorporated in the administration’s projections. Thus, the short-term negative impact of the fiscal adjustment measures could be under-estimated in the Fiscal Plan.
On the other hand, the Fiscal Plan does seem to include the positive effect of the implementation of a series of structural reforms that, according to the Plan, would generate a “cumulative 2% increase in GNP growth”. Without access to the economic model that was used it is difficult to determine the reasonableness of this estimate. However, we are troubled by the estimate provided for the amount of investment and the new jobs that are expected to be created by Public Private Partnerships (“PPP”). The Fiscal Plan forecasts that new investment by the PPPs will be in the order of $4.5 billion and would create 100,443 new jobs.
This projection is eerily similar to the one used by the Luis Fortuño administration in its 2009 Strategic Model for a New Economy. That document incorporated the effect of $6.2 billion in new investment by PPPs and forecasted the creation of 99,735 new jobs. Unfortunately, both the level of investment and of new jobs was over-estimated. We can thus surmise that the positive economic impact of the structural reforms may have been over-estimated in the administration’s Fiscal Plan.
Finally, we should be aware that all these proposals for adjustments and reforms will be implemented in a country where ideological ambiguity, political uncertainty, economic complexity and social disintegration severely limit the available options. The challenge is to figure out how to act efficaciously in this environment while accepting and embracing those tensions and contradictions.