Save so you can spend more and better.
This will feel like finding out that the money your rich grandma is giving you for graduating will be shares in a mutual fund rather than cash. But the short-term pain will be more than worth it for three main reasons: it will address the problems created by the inherent volatility of resource revenue, increase the value of the asset and guarantee that the benefits provided by selling-off natural resources are enjoyed for decades to come.
Putting the revenue in a fund and only spending the interest (after inflation-proofing the principal) does not eliminate volatility as the fund’s earnings will still fluctuate over time. Nonetheless, while occasional market corrections can be severe, a well-managed fund’s earnings will be much less volatile than annual resource revenue.
A fund also allows to get more bang for your resource buck by growing that buck through sound investments. The money is not put in a mattress. It’s put to work so it can grow in value and generate returns that can be used to fund programs or reduce taxes in perpetuity. Spending the money as it comes in simply depletes the asset.
If you decide to save less than 100 per cent, you get some of the benefits of saving but you don’t maximize them. What’s worse is that you remain addicted to the volatile revenue that you don’t divert into the fund.
In addition, diverting resource revenue into a fund is the only way to guarantee that future residents benefit appropriately from the sell-off of the province’s natural resource endowment.
It’s a simple principle: current spending should be paid for by current residents. But what about infrastructure that is used by future residents and investing in education today so we have the skilled workers we need tomorrow?
Since future residents benefit from these things, they should help pay for them through the use of today’s resource revenue and “smart” debt. This would make sense if these were exceptional one-time expenses akin to a family taking out a mortgage to buy a home, but infrastructure and education are routine annual government expenditures.
Using the future’s portion of our resource endowment to pay for them just means that future residents won’t have that portion when it’s their turn to fund annual infrastructure and education costs.
And don’t forget that today’s residents have the fund’s earnings to help pay for current expenditures, so it’s not like saving means no one in the present benefits.
Alberta’s Heritage Fund is an example the power of saving. Slightly less than $18 billion in deposits and retained earnings have generated $35.5 billion of investment income, and the fund will keep generating billions in perpetuity. This shows what can happen when you convert unstable resource revenue into an income-generating financial asset.
The kicker is that it will take a number of years to build a fund to a size where its earnings are equal to or greater than the resource revenue that has been flowing in and out of government coffers on an annual basis.
A government that decides to make the switch, even if it phased it in over several years, would have to vastly improve the efficiency of the public sector (a worthy goal on its own), cut programs or temporarily raise taxes.
Newfoundlanders (and anywhere in Atlantic Canada where resources are or start to yield provincial government revenue) need to decide if they want to feel the pain now so they can reap benefits later or stay on the resource revenue roller coaster and let the next generation pay the bill.
Robert Roach, Jeff Collins and Marco Navarro-Genie are senior fellow, research associate and president, respectively, of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. They are co-authors of the recently-released policy paper A Good Problem to Have: Lessons for Atlantic Canada from Alberta’s Experience with Natural Resource Revenue. AIMS is based in Halifax.