Don’t Blame Auto Bailout for $50 b Deficit
In all the kerfuffle around Finance Minister Flaherty’s $50 billion deficit projection, the cost of the joint federal-Ontario support for the restructuring of GM and Chrysler has been getting a lot of attention.
But while that restructuring support is an important and expensive undertaking, there’s no way it should be fingered as the major cause (or even a leading cause) of Ottawa’s quick slide into the red.
First, the financial support that will be given to the two companies is being delivered (the two governments announced earlier this spring) in the form of commercial loans from a federally-owned bank: the Export Development Corporation (EDC).
It’s a loan, not a bailout.Â And like the $200 billion in loans and asset swaps which the Bank of Canada delivered to Canadian banks in recent months, it should not show up on the federal books as a direct “expenditure.”
When EDC loans money to auto companies, it does exactly the same thing that private banks do when they loan money to their customers: it creates new credit.Â That’s not an “expense”, or a “deficit.”Â It’s an investment.
Now, fair enough, the EDC had to have its mandate expanded in order to do this (and EDC is now expanding further into other lines of lending associated with other troubled industries in Canada, ranging from auto parts producers to airlines, as part of its public policy mission to address the consequences of the freezing up of private credit).
A federal government contribution to enlarging the capital base of EDC, to allow it to undertake these broader and riskier loans, would show up somewhere on the federal books — more likely as an investment, than an expense.Â (And, of course, this investment in EDC would have implications for cash flow and financing — just as the emergency financing facility for private banks did — but that’s an entirely different matter than the deficit.)
Another way the auto restructuring could show up on the federal books would be if the government decided to book a “loan loss provision” of some size, on the expectation that not all of those loans to GM and Chrysler would be repaid (creating a loss for EDC, and hence a loss for the owner of EDC — namely, the federal government).Â That is a matter of acounting and business judgment.Â They’re certainly not going to book the whole thing as an expectedÂ loan loss today (although some of the plan’s critics, of course, no doubt think they should!).
Some of the restructuring finance may flow in the form of equity investments in the companies, rather than loans.Â This, too, should be treated as an investment, not an expenditure.Â Again, judgments regarding the prospects of receiving a return on that investment can be made — but it’s clearly not reasonable to assume immediately that the value of the investment is zero.
What is clearÂ is that the financial assistance being delivered to the companies is not a “handout from taxpayers,” it is (mostly) a loan from a federally-owned bank.Â To claim (as both critics and defenders of the government have done) that these loans explain most or much of the fast deterioration in the overall federal deficit is factually wrong.
There’s a second, more compelling reason why the deficit has little to do with the auto restructuring.Â The reason the federal government (despite the ideological predispositions of the Harper crew to staying away from this sort of thing) has decided to participate in the restructuring is because the fiscal cost of not keeping the auto industry going in Canada would be enormous — much worse than the cost (however it is accounted for on the books) of letting GM and Chrysler just collapse.Â Prime Minister Harper said as much in Calgary the other day — and on this point he is correct.
A December study from the Centre for Spatial Economics (C4SE) in Milton, Ont., authored by Robin Somerville, estimated the broader economic and fiscal impacts of a collapse of the Detroit Three automakers in Canada.Â He estimated two cases: a 100% elimination of the Detroit Three’s operations here, and a 50% reduction.Â Together, GM and Chrysler account for about three-quarters of the Detroit Three’s assembly and employment here, so it’s reasonable to assume that what’s at stake with the restructuring effort is a scenario halfway between Somerville’s two cases.
The C4SE report estimated that a 100% elimination would produce an ANNUAL fiscal loss for Ottawa (counting all the direct and indirect effects) averaging $13.1 billion over the next five years, and an ANNUAL average loss over the same period for Queen’s Park of $4.0 billion.
In the more moderate 50% case, the estimated average ANNUAL fiscal loss for Ottawa was $7.4 billion, and $2.3 billion for Ontario.
By interpolation, then, we can assume on these numbers that the collapse of GM and Chrysler (three-quarters of the Detroit Three in Canada) would cost Ottawa about $10 billion per year for at least the next five years, and Queen’s Park about $3 billion per year for at least the next five years.
Far from costing taxpayers $10 billion (even if the financial assistance was treated as a direct government expenditure, which it is not), therefore, the restructuring effort will actually (assuming GM and Chrysler do continue producing here — which the governments are wisely requiring as a condition of the loans) reduce the cumulative federal deficit by tens of billions of dollars between now and 2014, below what it would have been otherwise.
I have the C4SE study in pdf form and would be happy to pass it along to anyone who wants to see it.Â Just contact me at email@example.com.