However tough the next few months are, New Zealand is not going broke.
The good news is that the Government still has plenty of money to steer us through this challenging reopening phase.
In fact, it can probably afford to spend more to help those hit hardest by the extended time at alert level 3 – and I think it should.
Crown accounts for the half-year to June 30 suggest the Finance Minister still has about $12 billion available to fund our Covid response before any change to borrowing plans is needed.
Treasury didn’t put it that bluntly of course and Grant Robertson has been cautious about putting an exact figure on what he has available.
That’s politically quite sensible. I do the same thing with the kids to manage expectations about how often we can afford takeaways.
But smart people, like BNZ head of research Stephen Toplis, can give us pretty good estimates.
Toplis sifted through all the extra tax revenue, added up all the spare money that didn’t get spent as planned, and got to a figure of $16b left in the Covid response tank, as at June 30.
So far the Government has paid out around $4b in Delta relief measures, he said.
“That being the case, the Government still has another $12b to dole out if it wishes.”
Toplis figures that allows the Government to keep providing assistance at current levels for at least 12 more weeks.
That should be more than enough time to see us through the difficult transition out of lockdown.
In fact, it means the Government could be more generous with its support – if it is carefully targetted.
In my world, that means the small businesses in sectors like hospitality and other face-to-face dependent service areas, such as hairdressing.
But the queues outside the foodbanks around Auckland suggest there are plenty of others in need of a boost right now.
We need to ensure we’re not damaging the underlying fabric of the economy and that the costs of the pandemic are borne fairly.
But before we get into all that, I need to address the elephant in the room – which is debt.
There are those who will say the Government doesn’t really have money.
The Government has a mountain of debt and every week it goes deeper into debt.
That’s true but it’s not news.
It might seem counter-intuitive but increased borrowing doesn’t diminish the significance of that $12b.
That’s because New Zealand’s debt track – the path to peak debt and down the other side – has not changed.
It hasn’t changed since the Budget in May.
Net core Crown debt is expected to peak at 48 per cent of GDP in the 2022/23 year.
That compares with the previous projected peak (this time last year) of 52.6 per cent of GDP.
So, the last time it changed it was in the right direction.
But regardless, all the other big scary debt numbers that critics pull out to worry people are just a subset of that peak debt figure.
That’s the “as bad as it gets” figure.
It’s the one that money markets and ratings agencies watch.
The country’s strong economic performance to June 30 delivered an additional $16b into the Government’s hands without the need to shift that debt track.
That’s why it’s accurate to say the Government has money.
We could, of course, use that money to shift the debt rack lower.
If you really hate debt and are comfortable with austerity, that’s fine.
But I don’t see any economic imperative to do that right now.
We could worry about our grandchildren paying it back, but then we could also worry about leaving our grandchildren a broken society.
Our grandchildren are going to have all sorts of problems, just like our grandparents did and we do now.
Back in April, I wrote that the time for economic stimulus was over and the Finance Minister should put away his chequebook.
That was because the economy was overheating and government money was just pumping inflation.
Delta changed things. But not completely.
We still have inflation woes and parts of the economy are still running hot.
There’s still no point in the Government delivering broad economic stimulus.
But in Auckland right now, more carefully targeted support is needed.
As I pointed out last week, the Finance Minister is able to cite ongoing macro-economic strength to push back against business cries for help.
This week he got even more evidence to support the case that business is doing coping.
The ANZ Business Outlook for the start of October showed firms – even in Auckland – remain optimistic about the months ahead.
Ironically, in the past 18 months, confidence has been stronger than it was in 2018 and 2019 when business was processing the shock of a new centre-left government.
But both the economic data and the Business Confidence surveys hide a very specific layer of pain in the Auckland small business community.
It’s the small family businesses that are beginning to fail. The ones that don’t put a dent in GDP, the ones that don’t fill out ANZ surveys.
If we are blunt about it, ongoing lockdowns are the price New Zealand is paying for a tolerance of deep structural social inequality.
The pandemic and varying vaccination rates are laying that bare.
Shouldering the responsibility for that cost should be a collective burden.
That’s why we have governments, to borrow and spend. For times like this.
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