Cam Preston accuses the Government of managing the country's finances according to magician's theory

Cam Preston accuses the Government of managing the country's finances according to magician's theory

By Cam Preston*

This May’s Budget will be a continuation of New Zealand’s magical fiscal turn-around from an $18.4 billion deficit in 2011 to surplus in 2015.

And who doesn’t like magic, right?

But the thing about good magic tricks, is that you tend not to find out what the real trick is until toward the end, and you actually don’t know whether it will be ‘pulled off’ until right at the end.

In fact if the trick is dangerous enough, like sawing the Beautiful Assistant in half, the consequences of getting it wrong can be disastrous.

So let’s take a quick look at this fiscal trick. To quote the novelist, Christopher Priest:

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call ‘The Prestige’.

The Magician in this case is our Government and the Beautiful Assistant is the Treasury.

Of course the Beautiful Assistant is simply there to assist the Magician. They are likely aware of the mechanics of the trick, but they don’t know all the Magician’s secrets.

Under the Public Finance Act 1989 section 26G our Magician must exhibit “responsible fiscal management”, that’s where this trick begins.

The first part of the trick is of course “The Pledge”.

In this case we have to go back to the Government’s 2011 Budget speech:

Today I introduce a Budget that will further strengthen the long-term performance of the economy. It supports economic forecasts that show growth returning to its highest in over five years and 170,000 net new jobs being created by 2015. It channels resources into key social programmes, while ensuring they are well-targeted and protect the most vulnerable. It provides certainty that Christchurch, our second largest city, can be rapidly rebuilt. And, despite the earthquake, it eliminates the deficit and achieves surplus by 2014/15, a year earlier than forecast in last year’s Budget. As a result, the Government’s need to raise debt will greatly diminish. This year we have raised an average of $380 million of net new debt every week. Next year that will fall by more than two-thirds to around $100 million. And from 2014/15 on we will be repaying debt. 

You inspect the $18.4 billion deficit to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. Why would the Magician bring the surplus track forward one full financial year less than three months after the country’s most expensive natural disaster?

Indeed it is a well-known commercial accounting trick that if you are going to have a bad year financially, make it really bad. It’s easy in modern accounting to book an “expense” and reverse it later, or capitalise a cost instead of expensing it, however this is all part of the magic, all part of the art of The Pledge.

Besides The Pledge looks like “responsible fiscal management” why bother looking any closer?

Now for the second act “The Turn”: The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.

Indeed by 2015 the $18.4 billion deficit disappears.

You don’t notice that Crown Borrowings jump from $103 billion in 2014 to $113bln in 2015. You’re not really looking though.

Just like you didn’t notice that Crown Borrowings jumped from $69 billion to $90 billion in 2011 the time The Pledge was given. You weren’t really looking were you?

Source: Treasury – NZ Government Financial Statements 2015 page 25

You’re impressed, but you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call The Prestige.

In this case The Prestige was repaying that debt.

In line with the requirements of the Public Finance Act, and The Pledge, our magician must “reduce debt to prudent levels”.

The Prestige is the most impressive, dangerous and difficult act in the trick.

For this they will need their Beautiful Assistant, the Treasury.

The Assistant does some calculations and in Budget 2015 our Magician declares that if the surplus is reached, no matter how small, for just one year, and migration falls from 56,600 a year to 12,000 a year by mid 2017, oil rises to US$78 a barrel by 2019, dairy prices recovered to USD3,900 a tonne by the end of 2016, and short term wholesale interest rates stay steady at 3.6% until the end of 2016, tax cuts would magically appear!

The audience don’t know that the Assistant has been arguing for years, via the four year “Investment Statement” that New Zealand needs to repay debt.

It says while government borrowing was required for the recent economic downturn, repaying it is vital.

The Assistant points to the fact New Zealand’s big fiscal difference to the so called PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) countries is our relatively low government debt, which has been used up over the last few years, leaving no buffer, a buffer required under the Public Finance Act:

The Assistant knows that we are so reliant on overseas capital and the ageing Audience is so heavily indebted to foreign banks via their insatiable appetite for borrowing, that the prudent thing to do is either save or repay debt.

But this is the Magician’s show.

The Assistant’s job is to help out, and smile for the audience, to convey confidence in the Magician’s powers before The Prestige, the final dangerous act.

But there is a problem. The Audience gasps. The surplus can’t be maintained. There are questions over whether it really even existed, migration does not fall, dairy prices don’t recover, and short term interest rates begin to suddenly drop again.

But the Magician and the Assistant are prepared. In the Budget Policy Statement 2016, issued in December last year, words are changed.

The surplus doesn’t need to be maintained any longer, just as long as they outweigh the deficits over the next five years.

Repaying debt is pushed out from repayment in dollar terms in 2014/15 to 2017/18, and then to “around 20% of GDP by 2020”.

The “rapid” disappears from the rebuild of Christchurch.

The Magician has a new “Pledge” to introduce to the audience.

Tax Cuts.

They certainly know how to work a crowd.

So while the Beautiful Assistant knows the real prestige, the real magic is ensuring that New Zealand recognises and contributes to its full pension liabilities for the future, and that a sustainable surplus – not one financed by massive overseas borrowings – is achieved, that high ACC and EQC levies will offset any tax cuts, and that debt needs to be repaid to refill the “buffer” for future generations, the Assistant will not say anything.

It’s not their show.

The Prestige won’t come in Budget 2016, it won’t come in Budget 2017, and it won’t even come by the general election of 2017.

True Prestige is a much longer term goal: to repay the debt we have borrowed, and to eventually save for the risks we face in the future.

That is what the audience have come to see, but will they be fooled? Do they want to be fooled?

You see, anyone can make something disappear, the real prestige is making it reappear.


*Cameron Preston is a Christchurch chartered accountant and homeowner who has longstanding unresolved quake insurance claims.

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The other magical event is falling world trade and falling world GDP over the next few years. This will likely impact nz GDP and push relative debt/GDP ratio up. But in the wonderful world of low interest rates very few people currently living understand the high risks associated with borrowing in a deflationary world. Govt and mortgage holders alike. There is a reason why companies like apple have 600billion cash on hand. And Google. And warren buffet. They intend to buy assets at pennies in the dollar. We are at the roulette table and our housing market is "all in". Double or nothing folks, place your bets.

OMG, but they have done such a brilliant job of hiding this GDP fall for 8 years now.

Experience is the best teacher IMHO, ie no one will borrow in a deflationary world, we will be too broke to. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression and my parents were born during it , they were greatly scared by that event, 10s of millions of ppl will re-learn that fear.

Apple's cash pile has nothing to do with this IMHO. The thing is you would only buy at a firesale price if a) you expected a return and b) you expected to climb out of a second Great Depression. If on the other hand you see and understand we wont have the energy to do so then what you see is massive wealth destruction as there will never be the return on it.

Governments have been lying to us for years on their budgets. Labour had been delivering $10 Billion + surpluses, but when the people called for a tax cut similar to that given in Australia which would have cost $2.5 Billion, Michael Cullen said that he'd have to cut education and health to give it. A woman who confronted me on the fact that I called HC and MC at the time liars, didn't appreciate it when I pointed out the 12.5 - 2.5 still left a surplus of 10, so could she explain the math? Which of course she couldn't. So now we have HC lining up to head the UN and MC is a knight. Qualifying requirement being the ability to BS the most people. Can't wait to see what JK and BE will get when they step down.

a) but HC/MC paid down debt? from Muldoon?
b) If there had been tax cuts, we'd be borrowing even more now, today.
c) Where did National's tax cuts from 2008 go? into housing porking the market even more.

So while yes I do not think much of Labour I think even less of National.

Don't think much of any of them Steven. Don't see anyone on the horizon who looks better either.

Neither do I, hence I have no idea who to vote for. I used to think vote for the least unpleasant but frankly I see them as all so self-centered, incompetent and lying now that I cant be bothered wasting my time on any of them.

Plenty of small parties around.
Remember, if you don't vote, you agree with the status quo.
Or you could start your own political party.

It is interesting that the "right" throughout the world seem to claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility when in reality the opposite seems to be coming more and more true.

The smoke and mirrors is obvious, however the voter will not care, they'll see the 30 pieces of silver and take it with both hands. This prostitution will be made "morally" easier by simply looking at Labour and the Green's "hard left" stance and rejecting it. In fact I think NZF will match or pass the Greens this election to become the third [joint] biggest party, we might even see the Conservatives get in as a few % desert National, oh boy will that be an interesting 3 years.


Yes quite right. I haven't renewed my National membership this time around and neither has my wife. At this stage i think I'd go with NZF - and we aren't even that old !

I have voted Green for I dont know how long and I am even a member, but I am pretty sure I will be doing the same as you this time around if I even bother voting.

I'm thinking of going NZF as well next time around. On a personal level I don't actually like Winston, but I think its the best of a bad bunch and their policies do make some sense.

Agree, I'm getting hacked off at how sanctimonious some of the Greens are and how they think they'll gain even more support by turning even more left and less Green.

Tend to agree. That software Massey (I think) put out before the last one that identified the party whose policies most aligned with what you wanted made many take another look at NZF, but I think WP's obvious entrancement with the baubles and trinkets of power frightened many off voting for them. If he stood down and let his deputy take the lead, I think NZF would like take the lead in just two or three elections.

lead? if you mean pass the Greens? yes. I detest WP as he is amongst the worst vote buyers and his hench men no better, but Ive come to regard the alternatives as just as bad just not as obvious about it.

I feel sick.

Actually I wouldn't be surprised if they pushed one of the main parties out, but I also agree with some of the other comment streams - corruption and self interest has become so endemic within our political system it is difficult to see how it can be swept out. Not unique to us though, same just about anywhere.

They have a long way to go and only pander to a select market of OAPs, so no I cannot see them being No2. However that is a growth segment of the population, ie double the OAPs. So I quite expect them to grow to be the No 3 party in the next decade provided they survive WP's demise/retirement. that of course bodes ill for the future generations as this voting block demands more and more from less and less. Meanwhile the Green's I think could drop away as their lurch further to the left costs them more and more votes.

Please tell us which right wing party is actually not just another socialist party. National in NZ, for example, is has just continued on the same path as the last government. It's the left wing socialist policies, corruption and greed, that have peverted capitalism.

National are too left wing. They aren't a right wing party at all. The speak right and act centre left. There's a problem within National in that their Government departments are doing whatever they want and the National MPs actually don't understand anything that is going on.

For example MBIE carried on idiotic ideas left over from the Labour Government in 2003. They spent 8 years screwing up the Building Code. Once the full effect of MBIE's mistakes became apparent Maurice Williamson ended up on the backbench. Implementing central control without consulting the construction industry is a heavily leftist policy.

Actual right wing parties are a minority in Parliament.

Get rid of the debt!

Cameron, are you being deceived by the bigger magic trick? Labour got government debt down by doubling private debt, National have done a similar trick. So you are looking at the relatively small government debt rather than the $407,275,000,000 total. Which was a mere $229,988,000,000 in Jan 2006.

I can see that borrowing an extra $18 billion a year can oil the wheels a bit, but can we just keep borrowing an extra $4000 per annum each? I mean do we really have to ever pay it back?

Does anyone actually know how this modern money works?

Nice article though, I enjoyed it.

'Pay it back' WTF?

Off the top of my head I can only think of one government in the last 100 years who ever paid their debt back. Generally it just doesn't happen...

I think that was his point.

If only there was inflation to destroy the value of the debt. At least private debt can be eliminated by bankruptcy. If a Government doesn't pay there are cash flow problems everywhere.

Until its the banks start going bankrupt, then there is an expectation that the debt is transferred tot he public purse for future tax payers to cough up.

This is the problem when a banker runs your the hell did we let that happen?!

he offered us 30 pieces of silver and enough of us took it, mind you the alternative was swallowing a dead rat by voting labour.

Banker could be John Key and the Aussie banks.......just figured

Like Roger WitheredSpoon, I enjoyed the flash and show of the article, but really it shows only the public position. A more Interesting take would have been to show the private plus public position, and to also include the offsetting assets to arrive at a net-equity estimate.

Because the unfortunate fact, obvious to Awklanders in the housing debacle market, is that some classes of asset are wildly overvalued and could easily suffer nominal losses to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pesos per unit.

Which will have a shall we say Depressing effect on fings.....

I'm not too keen on pretending that offsetting assets and net equity make everything look rosy. When things go bad and debts have to be repaid it usually means asset prices plummet. Gross debt endures while net equity fades into nothingness. Likewise when inflation roars the gross debts become trivial.



Once upon a time I used to believe the mainstream media. Not anymore. This world economic experiment will end badly and the baby boomers won't have a pension to fall back on at the end of it. Revolution will be the norm worldwide once the sheet hits the fan

....MM media and the news at 6.00 are so pathetic it is laughable. Soap stories, non issues, issues of little relevance, sound bites from politicans with no attempt at a question. If MM had any balls they would organise a shutdown of covering any poltical party until said party agreed to front t up their mps for a decent cross exmanination, no hold bar interview on a regular basis.

Well its why JK wants to make NZ a bolt hole for his rich mates. ie yes "revolution" indeed Kunstler has said such and I have difficulty not agreeing with him. So the rish will need somewhere to hide, looks like its here, quite why they think NZers will put up with them mystifies me.

The BB will however vote for the likes of WP who will promise them the pension they know they deserve.

Depending where you stand, the system is working and making you and your children rich, or the system is broken and impoverishing you and you children. Both are true.

But what is the system set up to do? Its role is to reward private capital. As long it’s doing this, those that run the system and those that benefit by it will do whatever they think of to keep it going. Financial institutions and investors take the monetary rewards. Governments and central banks take the kudos for running the system. And the same figures slip from one role to another.

Behind it all is the idea of ‘growth’. And this is where the organisations that run the system look to be running out of ideas. QE, low or negative interest rates, stimulation of debt (and here, immigration, asset sales) – anything to stimulate growth.

Why isn’t it happening? One big reason is that we’re moving from a consumer economy to a conserver economy – hesitantly, yes, unequally, but implacably. The ‘growth’ model is in the ambulance. Not quite on life-support, but on the way there.

Without ‘growth’, the system is dancing on a swamp. The mountains of debt have no new buyers. Until now, the debt has always had new buyers - in ‘growing’ economies it has been rolled over or shifted forward, increasing when underlying assets are sold on at increased values. One debt is cancelled; another or a larger one is introduced.

Where are the buyers now? Apart from central banks there aren’t too many. And all the while, real money is being vacuumed up in interest payments. (The debt was money created largely out of nothing; the interest on it has to be found in real money.) The underlying debt, owed to the banks, can never and will never be paid back in full.

The belief in ‘growth’ is like playing pass the parcel in reverse – every time you hand the parcel on, it’s a bit bigger. The fact is, the banks and our governments now hold some very big parcels indeed, and there’s no-one to hand them to.

Welcome to the new economy. It’s here, but no-one knows how it’s going to work.

Always like reading ur stuff...Workingman..

In a way, we are all passengers in the same Bus... Bankers, Politicians, Rich and Poor..
Reading history... I can see that nothing changes until it is forced upon us.. until we hit the wall.
AND.... when that happens it is amazing how we are able to adapt..

The nature of what I call "debt Capitalism" is that it requires nominal GDP growth to continue ... Some of that growth is from productivity/innovation...BUT... most of it is from the exponential growth in debt... ( the creation of credit (money) ...)
In the context of Prestons article, NZ requires growth in either Private sector debt and/or Public debt..
Govt cant start paying down debt until the Private sector starts borrowing lots more.. OR.. we allow more immigration and truckloads of new Foreign Direct Investment...
( AND... of course that just exasperates the gap between the haves and have nots )

In my Lifetime it has been an amazing thing to witness the exponential growth in innovation/technology/productivity..... stupendous...
Alot of this is due to the current..."system".... as u call it..
Capital Formation has never been easier..... and the Capital Formation system (capitalism) is, in my view, by far the best one to express the "creative urge" of Mankind..

Having said that.... we are heading toward the "BrickWall" , in regards to "debt Capitalism"..
We are very close to the end... ( but who knows... might be 10 yrs away... or 30 yrs ).

Once that happens.. once we really smash into the wall... I'd suggest that we will have some profound and meaningful change.... eg.. growth will no longer be the mantra.. sustainabilty and quality of life will be guiding principles..??
( I'm hoping it goes that way.... Maybe the "powers that be" will go down the road of trying to control us..?? the death of democracy...?? )

History shows that the baser aspects of Human Nature always end up as a corrupting influence....
( which is inherent in politics ) ...and we repeat the slippery slope of the division of wealth and power from the many to the few... exploitation etc..

Division of wealth a 'slippery slope' ?
As if societal wealth were a fixed element that would remain constant under a regime where the creators knew it would be expropriated and allocated according to a politically determined formula ?
History shows shooting the Kulaks and expecting resources to continue being generated or maintained at the same rate is an equally slippery slope.
Wealth disparity is a powerful driver of human advancement.

No its a powerful dis-integrator, from too much comes revolution.

The conserver economy, prosumer or whichever term is used is very much here. On one financial forum I'm on we are getting people to pay down debts and get their budgets under control rather than accumulating credit card debt. Increasingly there are people reporting their net worth going positive. While this is just a thin slice of the global population it's reducing consumption significantly. The need to pay down debt or go bankrupt is a significant pressure in household budgets.

The most concerning article I saw in the last few days was children going hungry at school in middle class areas of Auckland. Debt servicing as a proportion of monthly income is clearly getting too high for some. Debts are paid in dollars not percentages and it's starting to have an impact. The cashflow is going to the non-productive portion of the economy.

That said it's a great time to reduce debts if you have money to spare.

This is not the new economy. This is the beginning of the end of capitalism.
You should do your nom de plume some honour and read up on your Marx.

You mean its the beginning of the end of socialism and the welfare state... and the beginning of the return to capitalism...

Capitalism is about the accumulation of capital. The global 1% are doing quite well with substantial gains. Although I do agree the top 10% wealthiest in every economy shouldn't have access to social welfare and instead should pay tax. Bringing an end to tax havens would allow for an improved redistribution of wealth.

yes yes ... and the reason why the global 1% are doing well is that they were bailed out by artificially low interest rates pushing up their asset prices (shares, property, bonds, etc) making their net worth seem even more at the expense of main street who through the taxation system took on much of the cost. That is not capitalism. Capitalism would have let them fall over, their assets sold off at lower prices, debts written off, and the wheel turns around and around. Now the wheel is stuck as debts aren't allowed to be written off, if they were the 1% would not be doing so well as they have the most to loose. Socialism is also really about the accumulation of capital and its distribution, as is communism, accumulation and control that is, for a special few. What we have now is not capitalism. Maybe its closer to fascism, where a corporate few tell governments what to do and everything else for their own benefit.

Yes the printing presses ran hot and pumped electronic money to those who least needed it. That's exactly the social welfare that I dislike. Nothing is too big to fail (it's only how politically messy it is).

Debts that can't be written off are risk free and the market rate for those debts is 0%. Except students in the US, their debts can't be written off but they have to pay 3% to 6.8% interest, a strange situation that applies to federal and private debts.

The only reason I don't support unrestrained capitalism is because sometimes markets break and some intervention is needed to get things functioning again.

The ones who need social welfare are in the poorest 50% of each country. High net worth individuals, corporations and hedge funds don't need social welfare or tax breaks. We could easily balance the government budget here with some minor changes to taxation/write offs of the wealthy.

Agreed, yes.

Capitalism needs rules to make it a fair - like a fair playing field for competition to thrive and new entrants not to be blocked by existing ones, and for consumers not to get ripped off.
Those rules need updating from time to time, one of those rules should be nothing is too big to fail (because it isn't). But capitalism isn't dying, if anything socialism is, the age is ending when governments will to buy votes by middle class socialism by borrowing more and more money. They will end up going broke and destroying the middle class in the process. Again - that's the death of socialism.

Maybe you should read Das Kapital, too.
The massive deregulation of the 1980s has seen capitalism run rampant, which is its nature. From boom to bust and back to boom, with as its result a super rich elite and an impoverished proletariat.
These cycles - according to Marx, don't take my word for it - will become shorter and more extreme.
This is what's happening now.
It happened before, and helped make a fertile ground for 2 world wars, after which there certainly was an economic hiatus.
Which was undone by the Reagan/Thatcher regimes.
Back to capitalism it was, and we're now reaping the whirlwind of the storm which was sown.

Thomas Piketty in Capital in the 21st Century pointed out that when the return on capital exceeds GDP growth then wealth flows upwards. That's capitalism.

This is not what is happening now. I will not be taking your or Marx word for it, thanks just the same.

The truth is the world has gorged itself on debt (taking tomorrows production and spending it today). This debt can't now be repaid (esp in many countries with a falling productive workforce) but instead of being written off, like any 'normal capitalistic economic business cycle' interest rates have been pushed down to save mainly the elite few who hold this leveraged debt.

This is not capitalism at work (which created the middle class in the first place!). I'm not quite sure what to call it to be honest. Capitalism would have meant freedom to go bust, where is the bust? we haven't been allowed to have it. Debts need to have been written off, assets would be fairly priced (not in the bubble they are now), savers would be getting a fair return from deferred consumption, this is not what we have now, but it would be what capitalism would have created if it wasn't interfered with, by a command and control, top down model, again that model wasn't capitalism, its closer to communism. Communism - which results in a ruling controlling super rich few and an impoverished proletariat. If we keep going this way instead of having a bust we will end up in an outright collapse.

Capitalism would create a fair return on capital thus investment opportunities all over the place. That's not what we have now. Where does one invest ones capital for a fair return? Today it's more about the return of capital rather than the return from capital. Again this isn't capitalism.

we are in effect running out of oil and rationing was based on price, which got too high and all but collapsed the system, it has never and never will recover.

I agree, and by borrowing from a bank you enter into a contract with an insolvent system to buy assets whose values are driven up by multiples of ? by that same system.

Thanks, Roelof. I too believe in structures that support and reward the creative urge of mankind as much as possible. We depend on free thought, free creativity. No structure's going to be perfect - the freedom we have individually in the deployment of human energy and capital is, as they say, the least worst. But debt servitude stifles living creativity on one side of the coin, while debt ownership appears to stunt ethical and social judgement on the other. The model is being played out visibly in the EU, was in everyone's focus as a result of the GFC, and is a noticeable blight here. We'll only solve the issues if we first face them squarely. The next generation depends on us making the effort.

I believe in a free market. But you only get a free market when there are strong rules and a strong referee. Our rules were softened and our government decided to be powerless. Thus the money has flowed to the few, who despite lies to the contrary, are the last people who want a free market.

Reading through the comments here. Some bloody good ones and points also. Gives me hope so thanks all.

Working man - to the average bloke your money creation ideas seem like a conspiracy theory. But the average bloke and most politicians for that matter have no idea of what is actually the truth. And those same people go out and borrow to the hilt. Tax cuts in 2017 is a complete joke.

I think the driver of all this is falling GDP, and deflation. Once GDP falls off a cliff we can expect stock market corrections as that is based on "earnings". A debt default or partial default is also a big issue. Watch Europe and China for that. That will then force a re-rating of risk worldwide which should then force the popping of housing bubbles and sovereign debt bubbles worldwide.

With every great collapse, war usually follows. Nz should be safe from war.

They say " helicopter " money to people's bank accounts. I don't think that will happen. How will that be funded without generating hyper-inflation.

Negative interest rates - well that can only work if cash is banned.

I think uncertainty in the system may be a bullish sign for precious metals while the game lasts. But once it does topple over the only save haven will be cash, specifically USD physical notes.

I think next 12months may see a few currency devaluations which of course will further increase deflationary forces.

Debt free I am. Banks can't own me. But I'm not rich. Just cautious.

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