Is Newfoundland a Petrostate? Part Two

It is instructive to use gross domestic product (GDP) as a means of evaluating whether Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) has become a rentier state. Let us compare across countries with firmly established rentier economies and analyze what share of GDP oil development constitutes: Saudi Arabia and Oman with 55 and 42 per cent, Venezuela at roughly 30 per cent, and Russia with close to 20 per cent. In NL, oil production accounts for 37 per cent of GDP. One additional characteristic of rentier economies is the small proportion of the labour force involved in the rent-generating industry, which, in NL, accounts for 5.4 per cent of all jobs.

Revenue derived from a particular rent-generating industry is another metric that one might use to analyze whether rentierisme has afflicted a particular jurisdiction: rentier governments depend heavily on resource revenues to fund programs and institutions. Indeed, the rapid influx of revenue from the rent-generating industry often encourages governments to adopt generous policy platforms. In the four rentier economies listed above, oil royalties as a share of total government revenue is 93, 45, 45, and 52 per cent, respectively. In NL, the provincial government derives 37 per cent of its revenue from oil royalties, reflecting the provincial government’s dependence on natural resource royalties.

These metrics seem to suggest that NL has become a rentier state, however, there are other elements that help determine whether that is the case.

The most common economic phenomenon associated with rentierisme is the deleterious “Dutch Disease,” which I described in an earlier blog post about NL’s experience with resource extraction. According to Kimble Ainslie, however, NL is not necessarily experiencing a “crowding out” of other industries or a decline in manufacturing employment. “Dutch Disease” typically occurs in an economy with a large non-resource sector, but NL’s agricultural and manufacturing industries are relatively small, and much too small in scale to export in significant quantities. (Non-resource sectors in NL account for 15.7 per cent of all provincial exports and 3 per cent of GDP.) Nevertheless, one could argue that NL’s persistent dependence on singular, direct sources of rent has suppressed non-resource growth in the first place.

If NL is suffering not from “Dutch Disease,” it could be suffering from a “resource curse,”–chronic political underdevelopment and corruption associated with resource dependency–which has retarded the province’s political environment over the years. Although the “resource curse” typically affects poor, developing countries, some aspects of it appear in NL. One consequence of lucrative resource rents, for example, is excessive, irresponsible government spending and NL is no exception: government after government in the province is guilty of increased spending habits and expensive social programs, not to mention public sector wage increases, etc. Furthermore, rentier states will earmark large, often dubious, public projects (read: Muskrat Falls).

Crowd-pleasing spending policies are commonplace in populist, single-party resource-rich states. Although a far cry from the petro-populism of Venezuela, the continuous rule of the NL Progressive Conservative Party, whose electoral victory roughly coincides with the beginning of the province’s oil boom, is intriguing. According to Reid and Collins, for example, former Premier Danny Williams used the oil issue in NL for political grandstanding and the demonization of his opponents.

Further to the aforementioned aspects of rentierisme, the most important long-term consequence of a rentier economy is a lack of incentive for diversification and long-term thinking, both of which result in economic vulnerability. Many Gulf countries have found it difficult to diversify away from the oil and gas industry, and with dwindling supplies in many of these states, in addition to the plummeting price of oil, the future looks grim. Thankfully, NL is less dependent on oil revenues, but, in the words of Finance Minister Ross Wiseman, recent budget shortfalls have one reason “… and that reason is oil.” Moreover, the provincial government has paid little attention to establishing a sturdier, more diversified source of revenue and it has had to make serious spending cutbacks.

In essence, although NL is heavily dependent on oil, and historically, single sources of revenue, it is not quite a textbook petrostate. The share of revenue and GDP resulting from resource rents is very high, but the effects of “Dutch Disease,” high levels of corruption and (serious) mismanagement, dysfunctional or authoritarian politics, and other ills commonly found in less-developed countries are less apparent.

Yet, the provincial government walks a fine line. The economy, albeit growing, does not seem to be diversifying. In addition, spending fell to reflecting falling oil prices, but per capita public debt remains the highest in Atlantic Canada, and as soon as rents begin flowing anew, spending will likely rise. In that case, and if government fails to encourage economic diversification–thereby continuing to place all of its proverbial eggs into one oil-slicked basket–the provincial economy faces the serious risk of economic decline.

As a matter of common economic sense, establishing a form of sovereign wealth fund (SWF) would benefit the provincial government in NL, and most importantly, the taxpayers who reside there. Liberalizing certain industries would also help them diversify and a more reserved approach to the oil and gas industry would eliminate the excessive emphasis on offshore oil. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, fiscal discipline is necessary and the provincial government must adopt measures that embrace it.

The future of NL’s aging population, and the younger generation there to support them, depends on the long term sustainability of NL’s economy. There is a lot to learn from the experiences of other countries with undiversified economies and the provincial government should take them seriously.

Leo Plumer is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics and political science at McGill University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

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