The Lapid Israeli Budget                                                                                        12.05.13 by Howard Adelman I have

The Lapid Israeli Budget                                                                                        12.05.13

 

by

 

Howard Adelman

 

I have so much to write about and just too little time. Major topics include: (1) Syria; (2) Tzipi Livni, John Kerry and the Peace Process, and (3) Lapid and the Budget. There are also a number of minor topics from Women at the Wall to Stephen Hawking. However, Yair Lapid tabled his budget this past week when I was otherwise preoccupied. The implications are important so I will write on the budget first.

 

In my blog on February 4th, I asked, “in a budget of NIS 350 billion largely locked into a third for interest payments on debt, another third for salaries and the other third with little room for flexibility, how can any finance minister come up with NIS 15 billion in cuts and additional revenues of about NIS 30 billion? I also wrote that Lapid’s stated priorities were to:

1. Reduce the cost of living by every means at its disposal (part of the coalition agreement);

2. Enhance free market competition and reduce the concentration of power;

3. Reduce economic disparities and launch a fight against poverty.

 

Finally, I also wrote that Israeli direct income taxes and indirect value added taxes now offer few incentives for any increase. Yet, as we shall see, these became the main sources for extra revenues. More importantly, there are more than sufficient revenues available by simply closing what in North America are called loopholes and in Israel are called incentives; very few of these were att. In preparing for this budget, I only managed to examine seven of twelve areas of the economy in order to understand the possibilities for the Israeli economy. The five areas still not covered include those with the largest expenditures: health, education, housing, defense and the support for the Haredi sector.

The total budget was NIS 296 billion for 2013 and in 2014 it will grow to about 304 billion shekels. Instead of the proposed cuts of NIS 15 billion and additional revenues of NIS 30 billion, the ratio of cuts to expenditures has been reversed. Planned cuts are NIS 30 billion (roughly 1/3rd for 2013 and 2/3rds for 2014. Planned new revenues are NIS 12-14 billion. Because the budgeted cuts run from July 2013 to the end of 2014, 18 months instead of 12 months, the cuts are only about 25% greater than anticipated. The real change is in the revenues which are much less than had been expected. Based on current committed expenditures projected forward, the deficit would have reached 5.5% of GDP by the end of 2014, up from 4.2%. Given the increases in revenues projected as well as the cuts in expenditures, the deficit will still actually increase as a percentage of GDP, up to 4.65 % this year and only reach the targeted 3% by the end of 2014.  

Last year, Israel spent $US15.5 for defense (NIS 55.5 billion), almost 7% of its GDP, but that budget excluded US$3.1 in US aid. The largest single cut was expected to come from the defense budget – NIS 4 billion, but this was, in fact, a smaller cut than expected and smaller than cuts elsewhere. A cut of NIS 4 billion from a budget of NIS 55.5 billion is a cut of 7.2%. Part of the spanner thrown into the defense budget was sequestration in the United States which has meant an automatic US$300 million cut or one-quarter of the Israeli cut. Excluding the US cut, the actual cut is only about NIS 3 billion. Further, the American portion of the cut could come from the Dome and Arrow defense missile system (total value $US 429 million) that seems to be increasingly necessary given the build up of rockets by Hamas and especially Hezbollah, but President Obama seems to have gone out of his way to earmark that part of the US$3.1 billion allocated to Israel. Today, Israel’s security cabinet will discuss those proposed cuts to defence. Given the visible threats from Syria, Hezbollah, Gaza and Iran, do not expect those cuts to stay firm.

As far as I have been able to make out, the cuts will be as follws – please offer corrections. Infrastructure and transportation support will be cut by NIS 2.75 billion in this year alone and 5 billion next year. There is no costs included for the additional number of accidents due to bad roads.  Education will be cut by NIS1 billion. The amount of the cuts from welfare and health was not known but is expected to be another NIS 2 billion. But a separate cut of a staggering NIS 3 billion shekels was scheduled to come from child allowances and support for day care programs. At the same time, child benefits will be cut from NIS 175 shekels per month to NIS 140 shekels per month, an enormous almost 17.5% cut. These cuts, if they hold, will be expected to total NIS 2.75 billion in 2013 and an additional NIS 3 billion in 2014. Cuts to settlers and haredim are expected to total NIS 2 billion. The wage freeze plus NIS 2 billion cut in public sector wages is on hold until Treasury negotiates a deal with Histradut.

Total Cuts                                           Year                NIS in billions

Defense                                               2013-14           3

Transportation and infrastructure       2013                2.75                                                                                                                 2014                5

Education                                            2013-2014       1

Child Welfare                                     2013                2.75

                                                            2014                3

Health                                                 2013-2014       3

Haredi and settler support                  2013-2014       2

Bureaucratic Fat                                  2013-2014       3.5

Technology Sector                              2013-2014         .6

Sundry            incl. wage cuts                                               3.4

 

Total                                                                            30

 

If NIS 2+ billion more came from cuts in a 12 month budget, NIS 10 billion less came from revenues, NIS 20 billion instead of NIS 30 billion. Since revenues were also calculated over 18 months instead of 12 months, though some come into effect only in 2014, the target is less than half of the amount anticipated. So the distribution between expenditure cuts and revenues is made much more even and the target for revenues is lowered effectively by one-third. The total anticipated increase in revenue by the end of 2014 is expected to be NIS 4 billion in 2013 and NIS 14 billion in 2014.

 

The Value Added Tax (VAT) is increased from 17 to 18% expected to yield about NIS 20 billion over 18 months. Additional VAT income is expected to come from a number of exclusions, especially in the tourist industry that will significantly affect the incentives for going to Eilat. Israel already enjoys a single-rate VAT with very few exemptions and this step will reduce them further. Another source of revenue is to come from tax increases set to come into effect in January 2014, an increase of 1.5% for those earning NIS 5000 shekels a month. That means not only that that everyone with a gross income of more than US$15,000 per annum will be paying an  increased tax of 1.5% but that the greatest percentage increase, from 14% to 15.5%, will fall on middle income earners paying taxes. Their increased tax burden goes up by 7%. Since half of Israelis earn under NIS 5,812 a month and half of those earn less than NIS 3,451 per month. On the other hand, health taxes will only be increased for those in the highest income bracket, over NIS 40,000 a month, or an upper middle income tax bracket. The increase will be .5%. Increased revenues will also come from pleasure taxes, namely tobacco and alcohol. Further, a new 25% land betterment tax, or speculative residential property tax will be levied on those who own second apartments with a minimum monthly revenue. The tax will be 25% of the profits, and profits are not discounted for inflation. There will also be a tax of 35% on pension income of over 15,000 shekels per month.    

 

The distribution of those cuts is even more interesting. Consider the technology sector first, the growth engine for a start-up nation and a knowledge economy. Netanyahu cut the technology sector support budget 10 years ago and Lapid cut it again. As a result of the ten year old cuts, the hi-tech sector stagnated, employment in the hi-tech sector also stagnated both in the sense of failing to grow at or above the rate of the Israeli economy in general. Further, the enrolment in hi-tech university programs has also not increased. In 2001, the hi-tech budget was NIS2.3 billion. In 2007 it was NIS 1.4 billion. Last year it was up again to NIS1.57 billion but Lapid cut the hi-tech budget by just over a third to only NIS1 billion.

 

Revenue could have been obtained by increasing the corporate tax rate by more than 1% but this would have run counter to the shelved plans to reduce corporate tax rates from 24% to 18%. Similarly, plans to reduce the top rate of income tax from 45% to 39% have also been shelved (the Trajtenberg Commission). The surcharge on incomes over NIS 1 million has been retained but not increased. It is not clear how efforts to enhance Arab women and Haredi participation in the work force are calculated in the budget in terms of enhanced revenues as well as reduced expenditures. I also do not know how the increased taxes on second apartments are factored into the budget.

 

Israel has also been unique in having a two year budget cycle since 2009 instead of a one year budget presumably allowing better planning but accomplished only through greater rigidities and less flexibility. This 18 month budget may create more benefits and put less emphasis on rigidities, but we will have to see. However, I consider this a disastrous budget for the poor and almost as bad for the lower middle classes totally contradicting the goal of reducing economic disparities and launching a fight against poverty. VAT increasingly weighs heaviest against the lower income groups in society; it is a regressive tax. The next target is the lowest tax bracket of earners. These are the income earners who will suffer most. When one adds the significant tax cuts planned to child benefits and to support for day care, as well as other cuts not so much in the public eye, such as cuts to paying for dental treatment, then it is clear who is hit worst. In contrast, corporations only have to bear an additional 1% in corporate taxes and the option of closing the vast majority of loopholes has been lost.

 

Note, unlike Canada, this is a proposed budget – other Ministers will jockey for changes. Expect changes before a final proposal goes for debate before the Knesset. My own suspicion is that the 18 month cycle is meant to make it harder to calculate comparisons rather than for either planning or flexibility considerations. Nevertheless, whatever changes are made, there is no indication that the budget will reduce the cost of living, enhance free market competition or reduce economic disparities in the fight against poverty.

Tomorrow morning I will be in the hospital to have a stent put in a coronary artery so my next blog may have to wait until Tuesday.

 

 

 

A New Dawn – Israel’s Economy

A New Dawn – Israel’s Economy 01.04.13

by

Howard Adelman

Last night I went to bed just before midnight. This morning, I woke up at 7:00 a.m. It was already light. I slept for seven hours straight. I did not get up once. In university, I used to sleep from 1:00 a.m. until 7:00 a.m., but that was 55 years ago. Now, to sleep more than 4-5 hours during the night is unprecedented for me. It clearly has to do with my sleeping with a breathing mask. I have now gotten used to it and did not pull the mask off or turn the machine off in my sleep last night. I am curious about what this will do to my sleepiness during the day and my nap patterns. You will be probably pleased to know that I will consequently have less time to write. My blogs might even become shorter.

One thing that has not changed is that I go directly from a deep sleep to being wide awake. I’m at my desk working within two minutes of waking. I assume that will not change as it is a product of my different brain wave patterns. Those patterns have, until the last few years, been of great benefit to my productivity. However, they have more recently led to my current problems with sleep apnea with the side effect of high blood pressure which I never had before. Hence, the sleeping mask and supply of oxygen during the night.

Obviously, a number of factors go into having a good night of sleep other than wearing a sleeping mask. I do not drink coffee and generally do not drink alcohol so these have never affected my night of sleep. I also do not usually eat chocolate. However, Nancy made a batch of chocolate cookies for Pesach and I had several right after an early dinner with my four grandchildren who live in Toronto. Evidently the dinner was early enough – 6:00 p.m. – so that eating several chocolate cookies did not affect my sleep. Nancy cooked a terrific meal for the grandchildren. However, they were so rambunctious after dinner that one needs a good night of sleep after they leave. Further, the early dinner may have helped getting a full night of sleep because we usually eat several hours later.

I certainly do feel really refreshed. As usual, when I went to bed and put on the mask, I was asleep literally in seconds. I do not meditate or pray or use other measures to relax when I go to sleep. I lie down and am usually asleep within, at most, a minute. When I wake up, I wash my mouth, but otherwise go straight to work at my desk without eating for I like to have breakfast with Nancy when she gets up. I probably should exercise but I do not. In any case, I feel totally refreshed. I tend to shower later and work first.

I always wake up without an alarm and eager to get to work on whatever is on my mind. However, the most surprising part is to wake up when it is already light. What a delight! I not only do not have to feel my way around in the dark lest I wake up Nancy, but seeing the bright day is exciting in itself. The sky was clear blue and it looked glorious outside. Mornings have always been blissful to me and now they will be accompanied by light, though I think I will miss watching the sunrise.

All this is but a prolegomena to a new series of blogs on the Israeli economy which I will begin tomorrow in preparation for Israel tabling its new budget sometime in June. In part this is recognition that political affairs, in particular, relations with Palestinians both within Israel and in the occupied territories, will be primarily determined by economic interests rather than security issues, although there will clearly be an interaction between the two and both will be shadowed by ideology. Further, most foreigners, particularly Jews in the diaspora, know little about the Israeli economy other than the image of Israel as a start-up nation. Protests, then, over the cost of living in general and cottage cheese in particular, take them by surprise. Third, as in most advanced economies with the rising supremacy of the neo-liberal economic agenda, the disparities between the disadvantaged and those with money has grown. Israel once boasted the least amount of economic inequality, and was second only to Tanzania. The country now ranks among the highest in economic inequality. Fourth, all economies are buffeted by external economic crises, particularly those current in Europe with its series of monetary crises. Israel is very vulnerable, particularly since it has a very large trade with Europe. Finally, as most people are aware, the Israeli economy is in trouble with expenditures greatly exceeding state revenues. The electoral shift in the last election largely took place because voters had lost faith in Likud’s ability to manage the budget.

For background, the State Budget of Israel that sets out planned expenditures and sources of revenue must be tabled no more than 60 days before the beginning of the financial year. If the fiscal year is July to June, by law the budget should be tabled by the end of April. With a new government just recently formed and sworn in, this became an impossible deadline. The first meeting of the cabinet on 18 March 2013, in addition to approving the Security Cabinet immediately after it was sworn which I have already written about, unanimously approved amending this Basic Law for the State Budget to extend the deadline for approving the 2013 budget to 135 days from the date the 33rd government was established. Within 85 days from its swearing in, the government must submit a budget proposal to the Knesset, which will be about mid-June. The Knesset will have 50 days to pass the budget after three readings, or in early August.

I will follow the following rough initial agenda. First, I will review who in the cabinet controls the key economic sectors and what their current policies are. Second, I will take an overview of the current Israeli economy because, as is widely known, the deficit reached 4.2% of GDP instead of the targeted 2% and the new government must both make huge budget cuts as well as raise new revenues to prevent the budget deficit from spiralling out of control. This means spending cuts of at least $14B shekels or over $US3.5B and tax hikes of up to twice that amount again. Such changes can be calamitous especially given that Yesh Atid and its leader, Yair Lapid, now Finance Minister, promised to build large numbers of affordable rental apartments for young people. HaBayit HaYehudi led by Naftali Bennett, the new Economics and Trade Minister, promised to build new apartments and infrastructure for the settlements. Further, Uri Ariel from his party is the Minister of Housing. On the other hand, the growth of the Israeli economy has been a tremendous success story. Israel has moved steadily up the Human Development Index and now ranks among those countries in the very high development group, ranking 16th ahead now of Belgium, Austria, France and Finland.

Bennet also promised to break the concentration of economic power among the economic oligarchs in Israel and to sever the ties between financial corporations and non-financial ones to end the current pattern of cross-ownership. He has been put in charge of the cabinet committee charged with both reducing the cost of living and breaking up the monopoly controls of Israeli economic power. Nochi Danker the Koor Group, Yitzcahk Tshuva from both the Delek Grou and the El-Ad Group, the Ofer family which owns the Mizrachi-Tefahot Bank, Shari Aronson who owns Bank Hapoalim, and the other billionaire oligarchs will all be threatened. For though the Knesset debated a bill presented by former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz along these lines to come into effect in six years, the bill, though it received preliminary approval did not come to a final vote and Bennett wants it to be toughened. It is not clear to me yet how the budget and these new moves against concentration of corporate power will affect one another, particularly since the tycoons are awash in debt and policies governing large-scale lending may undermine the stability of their enterprises. Yossi Maiman lost control of the Ampal Israel American Group and the Danker Group is rumoured to be at risk. However, we will soon see as this policies to break up the monopoly on corporate power are expected to be passed by the Knesset before the budget is tabled.

Further, now that the religious parties are excluded from the government, part of the savings and additional revenues will eventually come by putting the Haredi sector to work in the productive economy and reducing subsidies for the Yeshiva sector. We will explore the options available in this area and the anticipated economic, social and political implications. After all, the alliance of Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi has gone beyond a tactical alliance of convenience in negotiating with Netanyahu and has become a strategic alliance to lower the costs of housing and develop the economy. Further, both parties now see the possibility of an historic change and a new dawn first in uniting a hardline Orthodox party and a centrist secular/modern Orthodox party with a common agenda to draft Haredim and end their sweeping exemptions from military service, enhance their secular education and work-participation, and reallocate resources for an a fairer share of rights and responsibilities across all of Israeli society.

On another front, in the energy sector, the Tamar Offshore Gas Fields are expected to come into operation during the forthcoming fiscal period and the even larger Leviathan field about 2-3 years later. They will have a tremendous impact on the revenue side, on the balance of trade and on both business and consumer costs.

There is another area of the budget that will require separate attention, the defense budget amounting to one-sixth the budget. Everyone expects the defense budget to be cut and Ya’alon as Defense Minister supports such cuts. However, he and Lapid will inevitably come to blows as Lapid will push larger and more immediate cuts while Ya’alon would prefer smaller more spread out cuts.

For all sorts of reasons, there are wide expectations of a new dawn in Israeli economic policies. Though perhaps I may no longer be waking up before dawn, I can spend my time examining whether this in fact can be expected to be a new dawn or not.

Israel.Economics.A New Dawn.01.04.13.doc