Budget 2013: Gordhan exposes the limits of the fiscus
That is the hard choice beneath Pravin Gordhan's "keep calm and carry on" message to Parliament this week.
The "fiscal space" built up during the austere Gear period and in the boom years between 2003 and 2008 is all used up, and then some.
Government debt, which has been rising steadily to pay for the countercyclical spending that has helped to fend off the worst chill of the global winter, is now well above the average level of similar countries as a proportion of gross domestic product, according to the Budget Review. We can't really go to the well much more, certainly not to pay for "consumption" expenditure such as public sector wages and social grants.
Tax collections this year were down by more than R16-billion on the 2012 budget projections. This is not particularly surprising, given the strike-choked mining sector, grim conditions in Europe and the United States, as well as slower growth in China and India.
Still, the South African Revenue Service (Sars) has for more than a decade been cranking up its great tax-collection machine to deliver above expectations every year. It is a bit of shock then to see it undershoot, something Gordhan wryly acknowledged when he thanked the Sars commissioner, Oupa Magashule, and said he hoped "good times would return soon [for Sars].
Just as shocking, in its way, is the fact that spending will be about R10-billion lower than last year's projections – another reversal in a 10-year-old habit.
The trouble is that both new taxes and spending cuts make it harder to grow an economy, and this budget is absolutely clear that growth of about 5% is the only real solution on offer. Growth, in turn, depends on macroeconomic stability, the Budget Review insists. It cannot be bought sustainably by more borrowing or inflation-fuelling interest rate cuts.
The finance minister has repeatedly said that he thinks the eurozone deficit hawks are cutting too deeply and hurting the recovery that is needed to repair national balance sheets. He prefers the US's more stimulus-oriented policy toolkit. South Africa's problems are nowhere near those levels but Gordhan now faces a similar conundrum as his European counterparts.
This year's budget deficit is held at slightly more than 5% in two primary ways: firstly by that R10-billion reduction in planned expenditure and secondly by a bit of financial legerdemain.
The contingency reserve – the pool of cash the treasury sets aside each year against unexpected spending needs – was allocated R39-billion in the three-year medium-term framework, but now this has been cut by roughly a third to R12-billion, with just R4-billion set aside for this year. The remaining amount has been magically transmuted to the positive side of the balance sheet.
Thus the budget's big ratios retain a demeanour as calm and steady as the minister but, just below the surface, jaws are clenched and teeth are grinding.
Gordhan's speech provides no answer to the tax and spending questions he so explicitly raises, although the promise of a review has been widely interpreted as prospective tax hikes.
The real answer is in the centrality of the national development plan, with its emphasis on efficiency, predictability, clean governance and competitiveness.
Some of this is in Gordhan's gift. The prospect that the Financial Intelligence Centre may now pay special attention to the bank accounts of "politically exposed individuals" must have sent a shiver or two around the National Assembly.
Some of it is not. Disapproval soaks through the neutral language of the Budget Review as it notes the importance of broadband and the absence of a policy to foster it.
And threaded through all the documents is a recognition of the need for increased private sector investment and the conditions to encourage it.
The real message of this budget, then, may be that economic management really can't be about the budget any more.