Shadow minister concerned with economic findings

The Shadow Minister for Treasury & Finance, Ian Ling-Stuckey, has expressed concern following the outcome of the recent UPNG/ Australian National University conference.

“Economic academics from both the University of Papua New Guinea and the Australian National University say that the PNG economy had negative growth of 5.9 percent in 2015 in the non-resource sections of the economy,” Ling-Stuckey said in a statement.

“This is an extraordinary result confirming the economy went badly backwards. It would confirm what business people and the people of PNG have known for years – 2015 was a year of severe recession in PNG.

“Yet the government continues to hide and delay the official National Statistical Office accounts to confirm the recession. More honesty is needed from the government, as a first step in addressing the economic problems facing PNG.”

The UPNG/ANU 2018 PNG Economic Survey covers the year to June 2018.

The survey said the underestimation of the severity of the economy’s contraction has contributed to an absence of an appropriate policy response to what can only be described as an urgent economic crisis.

Ling-Stuckey said for all of the 100 Day Plan and the measures in the 2018 Budget, the view is still that “there is an absence of an appropriate policy response”.

“This is the latest independent assessment of how serious things have become in our economy. And the lack of data makes it uncertain to know if there has been any recovery – the UPNG/ANU survey states ‘Whether the economy has started to grow again since 2015 is unclear’. The 2015 drought has ended, but the poor economic performance reflected much more than the drought.

“As other papers at the UPNG/ANU update conference highlighted, the key new economic challenge being talked about in PNG is the lack of foreign exchange – now by far the greatest concern to business.

“This is a problem created by this government, and one that has seriously hurt PNG’s growth. However, PNG’s central bank continues to promise that things will improve just around the corner. But businesses have been waiting too long.

“We need to get a better understanding about exactly how our exchange rate is regulated. There should be a review of the central bank’s performance in managing the exchange rate and interest rates more broadly,” said Ling-Stuckey.

“Of course, the government does sometimes indicate that there are some economic issues, usually blaming external circumstances such as the fall in commodity prices. But the fall in oil prices happened over four years ago! The 2015 drought has passed, and the earthquake was devastating for the highlands but will have little impact on revenues and exports as oil prices have gone up strongly this year. The government needs to ‘daunim ol pastem’, eat some humble pie and be more open about domestic economic mismanagement rather than blaming outside forces.

“An example of this failure of honestly acknowledging the government can do more to fix the errors that it has and is making, was the Treasurer’s presentation to parliament on 5 April 2018. In this presentation, Treasurer Abel refused to acknowledge the concerns being raised by Moody’s when it moved PNG onto a negative watch, only the fourth time this has happened since 1999. Instead, he just talked about how the outlook for PNG is very positive.

“The outlook is positive, but only if the right economic policies are put in place in an environment of increased honesty.

“Possibly because he failed to even acknowledge the problems, another major credit ratings agency called S&P actually downgraded PNG’s credit rating on 16 April 2018. The two major external credit ratings agencies moving us down or on negative watch in such a short time has never happened before in PNG’s history,” said the Shadow Treasurer.

“As we prepare to go into Parliament on 17 July, let me be more specific of examples of recent developments that mean PNG’s economic leaders must be more honest in acknowledging their mistakes to our people:

  • In March, PNG’s National Statistics Office took nearly 10% off the estimated size of the PNG economy for 2015, reducing it from K62.3 billion (PNG 2018 Budget figure) down to K57.1 billion.
  • Nominal GDP growth was slashed from 9.8% to only 0.7%, and after allowing for PNG LNG exports increasing by K4.2 billion, this means the non-resource sector must be in a severe recession – this is the basis for the minus 5.9% estimate from UPNG/ANU. But the government is hiding these figures and refusing to release the full set of tables.
  • For 2018, the central bank governor in his Monetary Policy Statement said GDP growth should be higher than the PNG Treasury estimate at 3%, but Moody’s international rating agency expected the figure would be only 0.5% in 2018, and the Asian Development Bank released a growth estimate of only 1.8% in the latest Asian Development Outlook publication.
  • The S&P credit rating agency downgrade is a real knock to the PNG economy. It is only the second time that PNG’s credit rating has been downgraded by S&P – the first time was in August 2001 as the PNG economy struggled in dealing with the late 1990s economic crisis.
  • The government is ignoring the foreign exchange crisis. Once again, there is smooth talk from the BPNG Governor claiming their will be a balance of payments surplus of K1.5 billion in 2018. But this was before the earthquake, and after allowing for the loss of 2 months of PNG LNG exports of K2 billion, the most likely outcome is now a loss of K500 million in foreign exchange reserves.
  • Treasurer Abel is claiming the IMF has endorsed its medium-term fiscal strategies, but the 2018 budget over-spent the IMF’s understandings by K2 billion, and then invented fake revenue of at least K1.5 billion above its optimistic scenario.
  • Then the Treasurer says they kept to the 2.5% deficit figure in 2017, but this is a total fiction and reflects an increasing tendency to fiddle the books. For example, over the last week of Parliament, we have had two government ministers admit that there are massive unpaid bills – over K700 million in public works alone – and this leads to mis-representing the true state of PNG’s public finances.
  • And as a true sign of how the private sector is still struggling and has lost confidence in the word games of this government, private sector credit-loans for business investment and housing, decreased by 3.4% in 2017 even before allowing for inflation. Indeed, the entire monetary base shrank in 2017 by 0.7%.

“Now I want to be careful in commenting directly on statements by our generally professional public servants. However, Secretary for Treasury’s response to the S&P credit downgrade was frankly, poor. As explained by S&P, there were three major reasons for the credit downgrade.

“First was the unmistakable increases in government debt and debt interest costs – who could disagree with that fact? In March, even the Treasurer admitted that even in 2017, debt interest costs have soared to over K1.6 billion.

“Second was the drop in revenues – how could anyone dispute this – even the 2018 Budget acknowledged revenues had dropped dramatically as a share of the economy. 

“Third was PNG’s poor economic growth rate relative to peers – PNG is sitting at the bottom of the growth rate chart in all years from 2017 to 2019 for major countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including projections, according to the World Bank.

“The 2018 budget tried to present a rosier picture, but as I said at the time, these international agencies such as S&P and Moody’s are smart enough to look through fake budget figures with excessively optimistic forecasts.

“The downgrade, despite the government’s actions in the 100 Day Plan and the 2018 Budget, indicates that the international community just does not trust the government’s figures,” said the Shadow Treasurer.

“There were some positive starts in the 2017 Supplementary Budget and some elements of the 100-Day Plan, but things have gone seriously off-course over recent months. The Treasurer talks in very condescending terms to these agencies – saying that they are ignoring all the good things being done.

“These agencies, with their armies of highly skilled and experienced personnel actually know really well, the things that are being done, and they have the skills to look through many of the fake stories that have been included in recent government documents, including the 2018 Budget and the 2017 Final Budget Outcome (FBO).

“This poor economic performance is now clearly affecting even our banks, with BSP’s credit rating also having just been downgraded on 30 April 2018 from B+ down to B, and the ANZ has decided to leave large parts of the PNG market,” said Ling-Stuckey.

“The government simply didn’t want to tell the people in the lead-up to the election that apart from turning on the PNG LNG gas taps, the rest of the economy was in a severe recession. And now it is trying to hide the true state of the economy in the lead-up to APEC!

“Indeed, it seems too much effort is going into planning for this big international meeting rather than in fixing PNG’s true economic problems hurting its people.

“We need to be balanced when we talk about the economy. It is important that we do not talk it down, but we also just can’t hide from the truth with good stories.

“PNG has a bright future, but it needs an Alternative Government to help acknowledge our problems, to reach out for friendly foreign support, to genuinely start living within our means, to urgently review our foreign exchange policy and release more foreign exchange reserves, to take some tough medicine but then to rebuild our non-resource growth rate back above 5 percent again, the minimum we should be aiming at to start improving the jobs and income opportunities of our people.”


Press release