191508 2/11/2009 12:26 09BUCHAREST85 Embassy Bucharest UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY 09BUCHAREST1008|09BUCHAREST1016 VZCZCXRO8434 PP RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHDA RUEHDBU RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLN RUEHLZ RUEHNP RUEHPOD RUEHROV RUEHSK RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG DE RUEHBM #0085/01 0421226 ZNR UUUUU ZZH P 111226Z FEB 09 FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9195 INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 BUCHAREST 000085
STATE FOR EUR/CE ASCHEIBE AND EEB
E.O. 12958: N/A TAGS: ECON, EFIN, EINV, ETRD, PGOV, RO SUBJECT: ROMANIA: 2009 BUDGET MIXES REALISM WITH WISHFUL THINKING
REF: A) Bucharest 1008, B) Bucharest 1016
Sensitive but unclassified; not for Internet distribution.
1. (SBU) The Cabinet of Ministers has approved a 2009 budget draft that is expected to be approved by Parliament without substantial amendments. The final draft combines selected doses of austerity with an effort to balance competing interests by promising priority projects to all parties; the results are likely to leave everyone less than satisfied. The budget draft aims to convey an image of the Government of Romania (GOR) responding to the global economic slump by billing several spending initiatives as "anti-crisis" measures, although much-anticipated populist measures -- such as major hikes in public sector wages and pensions -- have been pared dramatically. Overall, the proposed budget underscores the fact that the new governing coalition is a fragile balancing act between its PD-L and PSD partners, whose marriage of convenience will be constantly tested by money matters throughout the coming year. End Summary.
COOKING THE NUMBERS SUNNY-SIDE UP
2. (SBU) While an improvement over the pie-in-the-sky numbers proposed by the former Tariceanu Government in its first budget draft late last year, the underlying economic assumptions on which PM Emil Boc's Government has based its 2009 budget still look too optimistic in light of current economic weakness. The budget programs a year-end fiscal deficit of two percent of GDP based on projections of a "stable" macroeconomic outlook for 2009, despite early indications that this year will be anything but stable for Romania. (Comment: Skeptics naturally point to last year's projected deficit of 2.5 percent, while the actual 2008 deficit came in at 5.2 percent in a year when GDP grew by eight percent. End Comment). The 2009 budget plans for overall GDP growth of 2.5 percent coupled with five percent inflation and an average exchange rate of four RON per Euro. According to outside analysts, inflation may fall to five percent or less based on how dramatically the economy slows, but few outside the GOR believe 2.5 percent GDP growth is realistic. Similarly, the currency would have to strengthen considerably from the present rate of nearly 4.3/Euro to meet the GOR target. The biggest disconnect is that the GOR forecasts its state budget revenues will increase by 24 percent over 2008 to RON 76 billion (USD 24.3 billion), despite weaker growth and a 30 percent fall-off in revenue in the last two months of 2008. These ephemeral revenue projections form the basis for a planned 17 percent increase in expenditures over 2008 to RON 94 billion (USD 30.1 billion).
AND THE WINNERS ARE...
3. (SBU) The underlying subtext for budget allocations to individual ministries has been the need to balance competing coalition interests. This distribution between the PSD controlling the main "social spending" Ministries (Labor, Agriculture, Education, and Health) and the PD-L running the Ministries of Economy, Finance, and Transport (ref A) meant delays in the budget submission to allow more time for intra-coalition negotiations. The final results seem to be a careful calibration of various interests which, depending on what numbers are used, could be seen as a victory for either party. The biggest gainers over last year are the PSD-run Ministry of Foreign Affairs (up 61 percent); the PD-L Ministry of Youth and Sports, which had been demoted to a subcabinet agency by the last government (up 47 percent); and the offices of the President, Prime Minister, and Parliament (up 46 percent, 31 percent, and 23 percent respectively). However, in terms of share of GDP the biggest ministries by far are the PSD-led Ministries of Labor, Family, and Social protection (2.8 percent of GDP) and Education and Research (2.1 percent of GDP). The PD-L-controlled Transportation, Interior and Public Administration, and Defense Ministries are also among the biggest spenders (at 1.8, 1.7, and 1.3 percent of GDP respectively), while the PSD Ministries of Agriculture (1.5 percent) and Health (0.7 percent) rounded out the major spenders. The PD-L-run Finance Ministry will additionally be responsible for allocating other funds worth up to 2.8 percent of GDP over the next year.
4. (SBU) Acknowledging the global economic downturn, the GOR is labeling several spending measures and tax cuts as an economic stimulus program. Most notable is the plan to spend 20 percent of the 2009 budget, amounting to 40 billion RON (12.8 billion USD), on much-needed infrastructure investments. The hope is that this number can be substantially augmented by EU structural funds, and every ministry is under orders to devote more staff and resources to this task. (Comment: To date the GOR has made little progress in accessing EU funds and remains a net contributor to the EU budget, despite being one of the EU's poorest members. End Comment). There
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is broad political consensus that Romania desperately needs more and better highways, hospitals, and schools. The biggest challenge for the GOR, however, will not simply be allocating more money to infrastructure, but using the funds productively. In past years, poor administrative capacity and lax internal controls meant that many infrastructure funds went unused, fueling end-of-year spending binges on non-productive consumption (2008 being a good case in point).
PENSIONERS AND PUBLIC SECTOR WORKERS DISAPPOINTED
5. (SBU) The draft budget throws only half a bone to core PSD constituencies, such as pensioners. In line with PSD campaign promises, the Government will establish a new minimum pension of 350 RON (112 USD) per month which will extend coverage to all elderly persons regardless of prior work history. The GOR will also pay 90 percent of the cost of pharmaceuticals for all pensioners receiving less than 600 RON (192 USD) a month. Other populist measures include a three-month tax holiday for temporarily laid-off workers, 50 percent coverage for adult education and training programs, and an across-the-board, five percent increase in public sector wages and pensions. However, the GOR has dropped other, more generous measures, including a scheduled increase of more than 20 percent in certain categories of pensions due on January 1 under the pension law. Teachers will get the general five percent wage increase, but not the much-debated 50 percent hike promised in a law passed before the November 2008 elections. The five percent raise will be offset almost entirely by reductions in bonuses and other payments. The GOR is also contemplating the need for some public sector layoffs. In response, teachers' unions are filing suit over breach of the law, and other public sector unions and pensioners' groups are threatening work stoppages and demonstrations in the coming weeks.
SOME U.S. COMPANIES GETTING PAID, OTHERS NOT
6. (SBU) To its credit, the GOR is moving to pay arrears, including to U.S. firms, left behind by the Tariceanu Government. New Minister of Transport Radu Berceanu has promised Bechtel that all arrears on the Transylvania Motorway project, totaling over 140 million euros, will be paid by March and that installments due in 2009 will be made on time. (At the same time the Minister is pressuring Bechtel to agree to contract modifications, insisting that the GOR cannot afford the contract as it stands). Lockheed Martin and other defense contractors have received similar firm assurances on long-overdue payments from the Ministry of National Defense.
7. (SBU) However, another sore point with many companies -- the failure of the Ministry of Finance to return long-overdue VAT refunds -- remains a problem. The new budget proposal includes a plan to allow companies to offset these overdue reimbursements by deducting them from future VAT payments. This may satisfy some companies, but offers little short-term relief to others such as Cargill which are owed tens of millions of euros in VAT refunds dating back over a year. The GOR is also aiming to save some money by freezing its contributions to the private pension scheme at 2.0 percent of individuals' gross income, instead of raising it to 2.5 percent as mandated in the national pension law. This has private pension fund managers, including AIG, alarmed that the GOR is jeopardizing their substantial long-term investments in the sector for short-term budgetary gains. Post coordinated with like-minded EU embassies on a letter to the Prime Minister asking that this proposal be dropped.
WILL ATTEMPTS TO BOOST REVENUES BE ENOUGH?
8. (SBU) With economic growth slowing dramatically, the GOR is proposing several tax increases to make up for falling revenue, and is betting that some revenue sources will continue to grow despite the slowdown. One lingering bright spot (so far) is retail consumption; the GOR is projecting VAT receipts will grow by nine percent. Continued inflation will bolster income tax receipts by 8.7 percent and corporate income tax revenues by three percent (despite a provision making reinvested dividends tax-free beginning in the second half of the year). The GOR proposes to hike excise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to boost revenue by a programmed 31 percent, and to introduce a new surtax on gambling and luxury goods. More controversially, a hefty social security tax hike of 3.3 percent, to 43.5 percent of the gross salary, will allow social security revenues to rise by 25 percent, but will do little to stimulate job growth in a falling economy. A big hole in the proposed budget is a projected 165 percent increase in public debt servicing costs to 7.4 billion RON (2.36 billion USD) in 2009.
9. (SBU) The 2009 budget is evidence that a difficult economic correction is underway in Romania, but it also illustrates that
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political responses to the deteriorating economy still lag behind economic realities. While modified since December, the budget's revenue and deficit projections in particular still evince some detachment from the harsh climate Romania is facing. Of course, if past years are a guide, the budget is almost certain to be revised several times over the course of the year, so budgeted amounts now will bear little resemblance to the final spending tally at the end of 2009. This track record will keep the business sector nervous and will increase the pressure on the Government to conclude some kind of external financing arrangement to restore a sense of stability. Tellingly, at a time when other central banks in the region are actively cutting interest rates, Romania's central bank (BNR) announced only a miniscule (0.25) cut in the benchmark rate to 10 percent right after the GOR budget was presented. In recent years the BNR has had to shoulder the burden of countering the effects of the Government's profligate fiscal policies. The tiny cut, despite worsening economic indicators, signals a lack of confidence that the GOR can truly rein in spending enough to allow for a more relaxed monetary policy. BNR would no doubt be happy to furnish a bit more stimulus if the Government would only exercise more fiscal restraint. End Comment.