Further to my previous post, the Hong Kong government has responded to the healthy fiscal situation by announcing a tax cut. But is that a good idea? To answer that, we need to think about the role of Government policy.
In an ideal world, the government (and central bank) can use fiscal (and monetary) policy to try to smooth the economy over the business cycle. For Hong Kong, monetary policy cannot be used for this purpose, since it is effectively dedicated to maintaining the currency board system. That just leaves fiscal policy.
For fiscal policy to be a stabilising force in the economy, we'd like to see a relatively contractionary policy when the economy is booming, and an expansionary policy when the economy is contracting. That is, the government should be using it's policy to actively work in the opposite direction of the private sector to stabilise the overall performance of GDP.
Part of this work is automatic. In a recession, welfare payments and unemployment benefits automatically increase, spurring an expansionary fiscal policy, and this is further re-inforced by decreases in taxes as individuals experience pay decreases, and may even drop to lower tax rates due to the progressive tax system. We call these factors "automatic stabilisers" in the economy.
But the effect of the automatic stabilisers will result in the government tending to run a deficit in times of recession, and a surplus in times of rapid growth. And herein lies the rub.
For politicians trying to determine when and how to adjust taxes, they'll tend to cut taxes when the economy is booming, since they have a healthy surplus, and raise taxes when the economy is contracting, since they have an "unhealthy" deficit. This works against the automatic stabilization of the economy, and is in fact destabilizing.
It is easy to see this at work in Hong Kong. The following graph plots government revenue and spending- excluding transfers to and from funds- for Hong Kong over the past 12 years. First, we can see that revenue is far more cyclical than spending, with the government always running a surplus in the first quarter, and a deficit in the third quarter. This is simply due to the timing of tax payments.
The next graph demonstrates the (sometimes) destabilising nature of Hong Kong fiscal policy. The budget deficit as a percent of GDP, with the seasonal fluctuations smoothed out, (left hand axis) is plotted against the growth rate of real GDP (right hand axis).
In 2003/2004, for example, the government was running a large deficit, in large part due to SARS. The growth rate was also negative. What did the government do? They raised tax rates. (See page 20 here for details). That may have helped to lower the deficit, but it also helped to exascerbate the recession that hit Hong Kong.
Fast forward to the present time, and we have the same mistake being made, in reverse. The Hong Kong economy is booming- real GDP grew 6.9% last quarter- and the Government is running a large surplus. So now the Government cuts taxes, potentially fueling a further over-heating of the economy.
My preference would be for the government to limit any tax cuts so that they definitely do not need to be raised next time there's a downturn, or a SARS, or a birdflu, or a crash in mainland equity markets, or a..... I'm not being pessimistic here, but the reality of business cycles is that booms are followed by slumps. They always have been, and they always will be. And Governments should plan for them.
But in the meantime, if the government wishes to decrease my tax bill, I won't be saying no!