THE Government racked up a Budget surplus of $6.45 billion last year, the highest since 1994, outdoing even the most bullish of market forecasts.
Unexpectedly strong economic growth and a runaway property market sent tax revenues surging, putting paid to an initial projection of a $700 million deficit.
But such a sizzling performance is not expected in the next financial year, with an $800 million deficit pencilled once handouts and changes announced in the Budget are accounted for.
Economists, who were predicting a surplus of between $4 billion and $5 billion, said they were caught out by higher-than-expected consumption and real estate-related tax collections.
They were also surprised by the size of ‘budget hongbaos’ that will be given out next year. ‘It’s a very generous Budget, with much more special transfers than last year,’ said United Overseas Bank (UOB) economist Ho Woei Chen.
Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam yesterday told Parliament the unexpected surplus came on the back of exceptionally strong economic growth.
‘We started the year expecting a growth rate of 4.5 to 6.5 per cent, which was also in line with market forecasts. With actual growth at 7.7 per cent, corporate and personal income taxes came in some $1 billion higher than projected.’
As anticipated, strong company profits sent income tax collections from businesses up 6.2 per cent to $9 billion despite a cut in the corporate tax rate from 20 per cent to 18 per cent.
Bigger wages and a tight job market sent personal income tax revenues up 18.1 per cent to $5.56 billion.
The strong economy also boosted goods and services tax (GST) revenues.
While a rise was factored in, given last July’s GST hike from 5 per cent to 7 per cent, the final figure was $1.2 billion higher than initial estimates. This, said Mr Tharman, was due mostly to higher consumption.
He added that the rate hike raised $1.4 billion in revenues, matching the size of benefits paid out in the year through the GST Offset Package and Workfare.
Economists said a buoyant economy enabled retailers to raise prices to pass on the GST hike. The higher prices, in turn, translated into more GST paid.
But the biggest surprise came from the red-hot property market, said Mr Tharman. Stamp duty rose to a record $3.8 billion, $2.3 billion higher than expected. Other property-related revenues also clocked in $1.1 billion above projections.
‘These were large gains, out of the ordinary, and which we cannot expect to see very often,’ he said.
UOB’s Ms Ho noted that net investment income contributions seemed low at $2.3 billion, given buoyant markets last year. ‘It’s the lowest since Sars-hit 2003.’
Mr Tharman said the Government is amending the Constitutional framework to let it draw on more investment income from its reserves. This would allow it to further enhance tax competitiveness.
A Bill will go before Parliament later this year.
In the year ahead, operating revenues are predicted to inch up 0.5 per cent. Spending will rise 12.5 per cent and special transfers will more than double.
Citigroup economist Chua Hak Bin said the estimates are very conservative as in previous years. ‘We could see another surplus next year.’
Source: The Straits Times 16 Feb 08