Urgently Needed: A New Budget

The Israeli economy has enjoyed high growth since mid-2003. In the 2004-7 period, the economy grew by over 5% a year - much higher than in other developed nations.

This year, the economy will grow nicely too, about 4.3%. But 2009 will be something else completely, as everyone knows.

Yesterday the Bank of Israel published a economic growth forecast for next year, saying it will be very low, only 1.5%. The central bank's previous estimate from only a month ago was almost twice as high, 2.7%.

Nevertheless, at Wednesday's press conference convened by the Finance Ministry to present its emergency economic plan, treasury director general Yarom Ariav said the ministry's estimate for 2009 growth had not changed but remained at the 3.5% figure used to create next year's budget.

Despite what Ariav said, the treasury's estimates are for only about a 2% growth next year. Ariav explained at the press conference that there was no need to update the treasury's forecasts, as the Finance Ministry is not presently working on building a new budget for 2009.

Economic growth of 1.5 to 2% in 2009, after four years of high growth, is no tragedy. The real problem is the uncertainty. It is not at all clear whether we are on the verge of low growth for a year or two - or for longer.

What if the crisis lasts longer?

The question of how long the crisis will continue is critical to everything involved in planning and preparation for the economy. The answers the treasury provided on Wednesday are adequate only for a short crisis. But what if it lasts a long time?

It is becoming clearer by the minute that the Finance Ministry and cabinet's plan, whereby the next government will inherit the 2009 budget approved by the cabinet last August - is simply not going to happen.

The economy has changed over the past few weeks at an incredible, unbelievable pace. The 2009 budget is based upon a long list of basic assumptions, and it is clear today that these are completely out of date: for example, economic growth of 3.5% next year and a rise of NIS 12 billion in tax revenues compared to 2008.

Finance Minister Roni Bar-On, Ariav and budget director Ram Belnikov all need to order their staffs to prepare an updated budget for the next government for 2009 based upon the up-to-date parameters known today - so that the next government can get to work immediately upon taking office.