The problem with Treasury’s broken crystal ball

Written By: - Date published: 6:56 am, June 7th, 2012 - 35 comments
Categories: debt / deficit, Economy, national - Tags:

They say that making predictions is hard, especially about the future. But what about the past? The Government’s Budget was released on May 24th, and it’s already proving to be wrong about the state of the economy and the books before then.

They said the economy grew at 1.4% in the year to December – it was actually 1.1%. They said the unemployment rate would be 6.3% at the end of the March year – it was 6.7%. The deficit for the 10 months to April is a billion dollars smaller than expected. That’s the errors against data released before the Budget came out or in the subsequent two weeks. In coming weeks, more March year data will come out and we’ll see how wrong Treasury is about them too.

OK, so it’s good sport to make fun of Treasury’s complete ineptitude at a core function. But there’s a serious side too. The saving from borrowing a billion dollars less this year than Treasury thought is about $40 million a year. So, the Government has $40 million a year more to spend than it thought and (assuming the Treasury’s projections are right) still get that $200 million surplus in 2014/15. That means, for instance, it could have not increased class sizes and still maintained its track to surplus.

Of course, that track to surplus is built on Treasury assumptions, too. And, if history is any indication, they’ll be over-optimistic because Treasury’s economic modelling is based on ‘return to mean’ – ie. after a recession there will, sooner or later, be a boom and then a return to average growth. Treasury doesn’t understand the economy as an energy system and the consequences of the end of cheap oil on growth. Treasury has reduced its surplus projections for 2014/15 by 85% since Budget 2011, and what little is left will disappear too unless – as Treasury forecasts – the economy manages to grow more in the next three years than it has managed in the past eight.

So, we’ve got a situation where it appears National didn’t need to sack a thousand teachers to reach its surplus target because Treasury got this year’s deficit wrong but, also, that it looks like it won’t get anywhere near that surplus target because Treasury’s growth projections are ludicrous.

But that doesn’t National off the hook.

They’re the ones who have reduced all the complexity and trade-offs of economic and fiscal management to a arbitrary, binary test: OBEGAL surplus in 2014/15 – Yes/No?

When you’ve got a government making its decisions based purely on a bookkeeping target, then you’re going to get problems when your chief bookkeeping agency doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.

35 comments on “The problem with Treasury’s broken crystal ball”

  1. Bored 1

    Somebody pass me the tea leaves please……

    PS Fire the lot of them and save my tax dollars.

    • Janice 1.1

      Why not sell them off as a PPP? It would save a lot of $$$$

      • Slartibartfast 1.1.1

        With a track record like theirs, who would even think of buying in?
        Mum & Dad investors?

  2. Peter 2

    It’s not just that they are consistently wrong they are consistently misleading and biased in their presentation of information.

    • mike e 2.1

      Treasury is no more than a govt funded arm of the business round table.
      Treasury should be closed down completely and the reserve bank take over their role.
      $75 million a year could go into education saving damaging cuts and doing more good than treasury has ever done .
      Treasury is no more than corporate lobby welfare.

  3. vto 3

    I blame it on Wellington Syndrome whereby full knowledge of the outside world slowly withers to such a level that even seeing a pukeko taking off and flying away is a source of astonishment (Jane Clifton on the panel, nat radio last week – astounding).

  4. felix 4

    What level of “cuts to back-office bureaucracy” has Treasury been subject to under this govt?

    And is “performance-based pay” on the cards?

  5. Could that be because the whole system is a scam ad they are printing money out of thin air. It is according to Chris Trotter

    • ghostwhowalksnz 5.1

      Trouble is Trotter is wrong. He must have found an old Social Credit pamphlet and reprinted it.

      While there is a certain amount of ‘credit created’ , it doesnt apply to home loans. Unless the Reserve Bank is the lender
      For a home loan, the bank borrows short term cheaply and lends long term at a higher margin.

      For a person who hangs around the National ACT fringes you would think he would listen a bit more. He just needs to ask some Reserve Bank mandarin out to dinner and he can explain it all on the back of a napkin.

      • travellerev 5.1.1

        No actually all money is created out of thin air.

        • travellerev 5.1.1.1

          In fact it’s fiat money not backed by gold or anything valuable since the gold standard was deserted in the 70’s

          • Draco T Bastard 5.1.1.1.1

            Nothing wrong with fiat currency as long as it’s properly limited. Of course, it’s not properly limited.

            • travellerev 5.1.1.1.1.1

              Nope on both issues

            • Slartibartfast 5.1.1.1.1.2

              It seems (from Wikipedia) that money IS created out of thin air but in a slightly more subtle way:

              “As an example for a very simple idea of how the fractional reserve system can work if there is only one bank, for a Reserve Fraction of 10%, a bank can turn a $1000 deposit of “M0” money, into $18,997 of “M1” money. Ignoring interest & fees, which makes banks even more profitable, this is how a bank can copy 90% of “M0” money to make “M1” money, where in this example the money loaned out is simply re-deposited in the bank and loaned out again, and so on, that is how the $18,997 “M1” money comes from the $1000 of “M0” money. Banks do this by accumulating loans and deposits (effectively multiplying) the “M0” supply to make a larger “M1″ supply. Banks can collect interest on the spread of the higher loan interest from the lower deposit interests. Return On Investment (ROI) for a bank is theoretically infinite considering the bank is using none of its own money, if one excludes the cost of setting up and maintaining the accounting system.”

              The hook in the juicy bait is that the interest component of any debt is NOT created and so the cumulative effect is to suck money from the marketplace into the banks. All very well if the profits from this are then distributed back into the community (while still making the shareholders richer) but mostly it seems to end up offshore. To replenish this requires MORE borrowing and further growth, always one step behind.

              I wonder if it’s a co-incidence that we’ve had global financial woes almost immediately after reaching the rocky plateau of peak oil and its subsequent handbrake on unlimited growth?

              • Colonial Viper

                I wonder if it’s a co-incidence that we’ve had global financial woes almost immediately after reaching the rocky plateau of peak oil and its subsequent handbrake on unlimited growth?

                Its certainly not a co-incidence, but also bear in mind that the massive financialisation which occurred years ahead of the GFC was (IMO) a tactic used to artificially stave off the natural slowing down effects of decreasing energy availability per dollar of GDP.

                Energy driven decline was in full swing pre 2008 in other words, but cheap printed cash and credit available at the consumer level masked the symptoms for a while.

            • Colonial Viper 5.1.1.1.1.3

              Nothing wrong with fiat currency as long as it’s properly limited. Of course, it’s not properly limited.

              And issued by the Government, free of interest and debt, instead of by private banking interests.

          • Deano 5.1.1.1.2

            a currency based on how much shiny metal you could have instead of money is stupid. It’s subject to fluctuations in supply and demand for the shiny metal, and it’s subject to extreme deflation, which is dealt with in reality by debasement.

  6. DH 6

    IMO the country needs clarity regarding what Treasury actually do and what their job description is. The most troubling aspect of Treasury is they’re often promoting actions that conflict directly with what the country voted for. I’d like to know, for example, if Treasury’s recent meddling in education was their own idea or if they were instructed by the Govt to come up with various options. If they did it off their own bat then they should be told in no uncertain terms to mind their own damned business.

    Having an ex treasury hack as finance minister is our worst nightmare IMO. English obviously panders to them and I doubt that any of the budget was his own work.

  7. vto 7

    What gets me about all these boffins is how much they get paid. Surely the highest paid in the land should be those who do the heavy lifting, not those who count the beans. Especially when they can’t even count.

  8. Ross 8

    Maybe officials have been spending too much of their time thinking out loud about how to fix the apparently broken education system. I suggest that instead of spreading themselves too thinly, they focus on their core functions. Education isn’t one of them.

  9. BLiP 9

    An oldie but a goody . . .

    In an effort to stave off as much public embarrassment as possible ahead of the release of any further forecasts, Chief Executive and Secretary to the Treasury Gabriel Makhlouf has announced a major reorganisation.

    Thirteen economists in the Treasury Forecasts Unit will be made redundant and a flock of chickens brought in to replace them. Mr Makhlouf said “we have been shamed over and over again during the last five years by being completely unable to get within even cooee of the actual figures in our forecasts. We believe this reorganisation underlines our commitment to this government to get things right going forward.”

    In a rare display of solidarity with management, the Secret Order of Gnomes, Witches, Warlocks and Economists accepts that the decision by Treasury is essential if confidence in the work of economists is to be sustained. “We have no sympathy for our colleagues in this instance,” head of the trade union Prof. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore said. “We shall be taking back their cloaks and staffs this week and it is unlikely they will find work outside of the banking sector in this country ever again.”

    The reorganisation of the Unit will also see Treasury return to old, tested and proven methods of economic forecasting. New head of the Unit, Shelby Wright, explains that “at precisely midnight on each of the three full moons which make up the quarter, three chickens will be sacrificed and their blood volume measured out. This will give us a near immediate indication as to the current direction of New Zealand’s economy.

    “Once the necessary rituals have been carried out, there will be a detailed analysis of each of the chicken’s entrails and it is there that the exact details will be found along with an identification of which levers will need to be tweaked to bring forecasts into line with the future.”

    Praise for the reorganisation has also come from academic institutions. The Chair of Auckland University’s Economics and Necromancy School, Lord Voldemort described today’s announcement as a “grand return to methods long taught through centuries of economic study.”

    The forecast numbers to be derived from the reorganised structure will be tested over the short term by students at Auckland University who will run a parallel programme using Tarot Cards and Oracle Bones.

    Finance Minister Bill English also welcomed the move. “We rely on on Treasury to get things right. There were absolutely no indications that rising unemployment combined with an inflationary cycle coupled to an increase in GST to fund tax cuts for the top ten percent of income earners, and the billions of dollars in subsidies to polluting farmers would result in a lower tax take and less consumption.

    “Hopefully Treasury can get it right this time and there will be no more nasty surprises.”

    Although he indicated the disappointment with figures yesterday, Prime Minister John Key will be no where near the actual announcement today. Its understood that, in his role as Minister for Tourism in New Zealand, John Key is supervising the packing required for his return from England where he went to see the Queen.

    “She’s a bit wrinky, and, look, I can count to potato,” he said.

    • ghostwhowalksnz 9.1

      Reports from London are suggesting that Mr Key , after hearing the Queen had been on the throne for 60 years, included some laxatives with a fernleaf motif on the packaging among the gifts for her Majesty

  10. Ad 10

    This is not a time for the finger-wagging and “I told you so’s”. Treasury have provided extremely poor quality advice and budgets for four years in a row, all of which are truly coming back at them.

    They need to provide quality and reliable advice, or else the Farrar’s and Whaleoils of this world will to do a Green-Labour government what the left are doing to the current government because of these successive mistakes: turn good political careers into fish food.

    Treasury needs to ask for assistance from the Australian Federal Treasury as part of regular peer review.

    Otherwise the distrust will mount between Cabinet and Treasury to the extent it becomes very hard to function as a Cabinet, of whichever shade.

    • Draco T Bastard 10.1

      Treasury have provided extremely poor quality advice and budgets for four years in a row, all of which are truly coming back at them.

      IMO, Treasury have been giving poor quality advice for 30+ years. The problem is that they use a failed theory/model of the economy – one they started using before the politicians did.

      Treasury needs to ask for assistance from the Australian Federal Treasury as part of regular peer review.

      Why? The Australian Treasury uses the same theories ours do.

      Otherwise the distrust will mount between Cabinet and Treasury to the extent it becomes very hard to function as a Cabinet, of whichever shade.

      Considering the total failure of Treasury to get pretty much anything right I’m amazed there’s any trust left – except for RWNJ governments who believe the same delusional economic theory and that everyone else is just as greedy as them.

      • Ad 10.1.1

        Yes I would expect the Treasury relationship will be pretty frosty, with the Government’s options narrowing daily.

        Brian Fallow and Tony Alexander make similarly gloomy predictions in the NZHerald today to your previous discussion about banks and printing money.

  11. Seen this?

    http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PO1206/S00031/governments-huge-derivatives-exposure-needs-public-scrutiny.htm

    Wouldn’t you think NZ ‘perceived’ to be ‘the least corrupt country in the world’ – would be a bit more ‘transparent’ in letting the public know where OUR public money is being spent?

    Who makes these decisions?

    Whose interests are they serving?

    Where’s the ‘Register of Interests’ for those who are responsible for the NZ Government’s ‘huge derivatives exposure’ – who delegated them the authority to so do and upon what LAWFUL basis?

    Penny Bright
    ‘Anti-corruption campaigner’

    http://www.dodgyjohnhasgone.com

  12. Afewknowthetruth 12

    Eddie, you’re taking it all far too seriously. It’s only a game. It’s called ‘Loot the till and become a multi-millionaire before it all collapses,’ otherwise known as ‘Plunder’. The game is best played by fudging or fabricating economic data.

    It’s a worldwide phenomenon, and the game is being played in all ‘western nations’ at the central government level, at the regional council level and at the district/city council level, whichever political party happens to be in power.

    .

  13. Johnm 13

    “Treasury’s growth projections are ludicrous.”
    We have reached the end of growth. It’s a pity we pay huge salaries to those treasury Hogwarts, Harry Potter, types for their worse than useless opinions!

    Global economy has died back in response to high oil prices now falling in reply:

    “The chart shows petroleum usage is back to levels seen in 1998. Gasoline usage is back to levels seen in 2002.

    This chart is consistent with reports that show petroleum usage in the eurozone is expected to fall to 1996 levels.”

    Link: http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com/2012/06/3-month-petroleum-usage-chart-for-march.html

    The question now is with a pie set to contract do we address poverty and inequality or do we continue hoarding wealth towards the top of the pile?

  14. Johnm 14

    Treasury’s magic broomstick growth expectations along with more inflated salaries for the Hogwart idiots is punctured by the following reality check by a man who’d be lucky to be let into their arcane world of B.S.

    Kevin Moore is onto it as well as to what’s happening and its effects on us:

    Link:
    http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/22968224

    Scroll through to start of Kevin’s presentation at 1hour 33 minutes to the NPDC.

  15. Johnm 15

    “Andrew McKay writing on resource limits, energy, environment, peak oil and peak everything from a New Zealand perspective”

    “The global economy is based on transportation networks that are propped up by cheap energy. Because of this we can be relatively certain that when demand for energy begins to fall that the economy is slowing. And when energy prices fall sharply we can be relatively certain that the economy is not just slowing but entering into a recession. ”

    link: http://www.southernlimitsnz.com/2012/06/brace-yourself-for-next-global.html

    The trouble with Treasury is they live in a self validated fantasy land, not the real world at all.

    • Thanks John.

      Apologies for derailing the thread but I’m wondering if you or anyone else out there can answer me this:

      Given that oil prices are the main driver of inflation, what is the relevance of inflation adjusted oil prices? It seems like an ridiculously circular system. This link here explains the current system: http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/06/oilpricesinflation.asp#axzz1x28reIzL

      Shouldn’t we just leave oil prices separate from other commodities and present them as nominal only, rather than adjusting them for inflation which is measured by the consumer price index which is heavily influenced by the price of oil? It seems to me that oil is so important to the modern economy that is should be treated as an entity to itself. I’m not an economist so I’m wondering if a few of the more financial types could spread some light on this for me. Thanks.

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