Government debt now exceeds $100 billion, more than 70 percent on pre-COVID-19

The Government's books have been opened up, showing more than $100 billion in debt - but on the bright side, it was $4.4 billion less than anticipated.   

Treasury's update shows the Government is $103.3 billion in debt. It represents 32.6 percent of GDP, which is calculated by comparing what the Government owes with what it produces, or its gross domestic product. 

But the pile of debt was $4.4 billion less than expected, due to $1.7 billion more in tax than anticipated, and expenses - such as social security and welfare spending - being $500 million below forecast. 

How does the debt compare to pre-COVID times? In February 2020, Government debt was at $59.7 billion, representing just 19.5 percent of GDP. It means in the space of one year, debt has increased by 73 percent because of COVID-19. 

Debt is tipped to reach $190 billion by 2025 - 46.9 percent of GDP. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson seems pleased with the latest results, pointing to high GST and corporate tax revenue intake, described by Treasury as "well ahead of forecast". 

Overall tax revenue was $60.9 billion - $2.3 billion above forecast due to the higher than anticipated tax intake, which Robertson said "reflects the resilience of the economy and confidence in the recovery". 

Treasury noted: "These positive variances to forecast reflect an improvement in economic conditions, in particular stronger domestic spending, higher profitability and better labour market conditions than forecast."

But Treasury said the results also show the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic "are still visible", with "continued higher levels" of debt hanging over the country, as the Government tries to keep the economy afloat through stimulus. 

Robertson said: "We do need to remain aware that we are still in a volatile and uncertain global economic environment. There will still be challenges ahead this year, and some sectors and regions will be particularly tested."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

He said the Government will consider the economic conditions alongside improved revenue in Budget 2021, to be delivered on May 20. It will include a "strong focus" on making sure spending is "carefully prioritised and targeted" at the areas and people that need it the most, he said. 

"The significant resources we have put into the recovery and rebuild will be supplemented by further investment over coming Budgets, but quite clearly we need to strike a balance with rebuilding and maintaining a strong fiscal position."

Government expenses were $68.9 billion, $500 million below forecast, in the eight months ended February 28, partly due to higher than expected repayments of the COVID-19 wage subsidy scheme.

Robertson has often pointed out that New Zealand's debt levels are much lower than countries we compare ourselves to. For example, the UK's debt to GDP is more than 100 percent, while Japan's is more than 200 percent. 

New Zealand's GDP fell by 1 percent in the December quarter, after the lockdown periods in Auckland and the continued lack of international tourists.  

It came off the back of a huge 13.9 percent increase in the September quarter - a bounce back from the 12.2 percent fall in the June quarter after the nationwide lockdown when many businesses were shut for weeks, and the economy dipped into recession.