Government shifts budget goalposts

08 February 2002

The Finance Ministry has announced a fresh method for calculating the budget deficit, with the result that the shortfall is considerably smaller than previously suggested. Economists have reacted with perplexity to the move, which is thought unlikely to alter the general perception that fiscal policy is one of the weak points of the Egyptian economy.

An 'official ministry source' was quoted in the Cairo daily Al-Ahram on 5 February as saying that the fiscal deficit in 2000/01 (July-June) was £E 5,300 million ($1,144 million), equivalent to 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). This compares with figures of £E 19,300 million ($4,166 million) and 5.4 per cent respectively attributed to the Central Bank of Egypt. The relevant section on the central bank's website was not accessible on 5 February. The most recent entry on the site seen by MEED stated that the deficit for the first three quarters of 2000/01 was 4.5 per cent of GDP. Central bank officials were not available to comment on why the budget data appeared to have been removed from the website.

The ministry official said the central bank figures only presented a partial picture, and the full budget should include resources from the National Investment Bank (NIB) and the state pension funds. If these sources of funds are included, the overall deficit is reduced, the official said.

'These are very strange, unexpected figures,' says one Egyptian economist. 'It appears that the government has become concerned at the repeated references to a high budget deficit and is trying to manipulate the figures down. The Finance Ministry is not replying to our requests for an explanation.'

NIB is one of the main sources of subsidised loans for public sector projects. Its primary sources of finance are the state pension and social security funds. Analysts say it is not clear how the bank and these funds can be construed as boosting government revenues. 'I have never, ever understood Egyptian fiscal policy,' confesses one senior economist at an international bank active in Egypt.

Some analysts reckon the central bank figures for the budget understate the actual level of the deficit. They contend that the increase in domestic debt provides a more accurate benchmark. Total domestic public debt rose by 17 per cent in the course of 2000/01 to reach £E 233,464 million ($50,397 million), equivalent to about 72 per cent of GDP.

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