Monday, 11 April 2016

The Saudi fiscal plan is more austere than Greece

The Saudi austerity plan is too stringent and, if implemented, could be damaging for growth.

The fall in oil prices has hit Saudi public finances. The government’s budget balance switched from a surplus of 6% of GDP (a measure of the size of the economy) in 2013 to a large deficit of 15% in 2015. At this level, the Saudi budget deficit is unsustainable.

In an interview with Bloomberg last week, the Saudi deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and his team reiterated their plans to achieve a balanced budget by 2020. If this plan is implemented, Saudi Arabia will embark on an austerity programme more stringent that the one which had sent Greece into a depression. And it will be executed under more challenging economic conditions that the ones Greece had faced. The plan could prove more damaging than helpful for the Saudi economy. Therefore, it is unlikely to be strictly implemented.

What is the Saudi plan on the deficit?

Mohammed bin Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh, a Minister of State, said during the Bloomberg interview that: [B]y 2020, our plan is that we will have a balanced budget.”

- This echoes what was said in an earlier interview with the Economist: “he [Mohamed bin Salman] plans to balance the budget in five years.”

How do they plan to balance the budget?

- Through raising $100bn of additional non-oil revenue by 2020. The new sources of revenue include the introduction of a value-added tax (VAT) and other fees and the removal of subsidies.

- Assuming no additional oil revenue (“We try to focus on the non-oil economy,” bin Salman said), and public spending that is fixed at 2015 levels, the additional $100bn of non-oil revenue should be enough to balance the books.

How large is this austerity programme?

- A move from a deficit of 15% of GDP to a balanced budget within five years is very large.

- Such programme would be more stringent than the austerity programme which had sent the Greek economy into a depression. Greece reduced its budget deficit from 15% of GDP in 2009 (similar to Saudi Arabia today) to a deficit of 4% five years later (Saudi Arabia plans 0%).

- It would also be more austere that the programme implemented by the Conservative-led government in the UK, where the budget deficit went from 13% of GDP in 2009 to 4% in 2014.

What is the likely economic impact of the Saudi austerity plan?

- Judging by the experiences of Greece and the UK, the plan is likely to be quite damaging for growth in Saudi Arabia.

- Moreover, the Saudis will be implementing their austerity measures under more difficult conditions than the ones either Greece or the UK had faced.

- While their governments were engaged in austerity, the central banks in both Greece (the Euro Area) and the UK reduced interest rates in an attempt to boost growth by stimulating lending and investments.

- Saudi Arabia does not have that luxury. Saudi interest rates are linked to the US because of the currency peg to the US dollar. Indeed, when the US raised interest rates in December, the Saudis swiftly followed.

- US interest rates are expected to rise over the medium term, which means that Saudi rates will also rise, increasing the cost of borrowing for households and businesses and inhibiting consumption and investment.

- The private sector is unlikely to step in to fill the hole left by the government. It will face increasing costs as subsidies are removed and VAT is implemented.

What is the way forward?

- Saudi Arabia needs to reduce its budget deficit. A deficit as large as 15% of GDP cannot be sustained beyond a few years.

- But the plan to balance the budget in five years is too ambitious and could be damaging for growth and counter-productive for debt sustainability. It is therefore unlikely to be strictly implemented.

- The optimal speed of fiscal consolidation is somewhere between the two extremes of doing nothing and doing too much too fast. Let’s leave identifying this speed to future work.


  1. The comparison with Greece/UK is useful. However, their economies have very different structures which might make the austerity easier (as one example, the Greek/UK governments have to pick up the welfare costs of the unemployed, whereas in Saudi expats can be made redundant and deported).

    1. True, but:

      1. Laying off expats and deporting them will still reduce domestic demand and should be negative for growth.

      2. The scale of the planned fiscal consolidation is very large. Even with a fiscal multiplier of 0.5 for Saudi Arabia, the drag on growth will be 1.5% a year, each year, for the next five years.

      3. Monetary policy cannot come to the rescue in the case of Saudi Arabia.

      If anything, the comparison with Greece/UK is not valid because the outcome for Saudi will be worse, which is why I think they will shelve this plan and try something more humane.