Guatemala: Fiscal Challenges Await New President

By ICEFI and CLALS*

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei is sworn in, January 14, 2020

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei is sworn in, January 14, 2020/ US Embassy Guatemala/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/2GeHS0U

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, inaugurated on January 14, faces a deeper public finance crisis than previously estimated, putting even greater pressure on him to undertake fiscal reforms and start the slow and difficult process of fiscal stabilization and recovery.

  • The Giammattei administration has inherited a fiscal mess from former President Jimmy Morales, during whose four-year administration public spending on principal social needs didn’t surpass 8 percent of GDP (7.9 percent in 2019). Despite slow, slight growth in the education budget in 2015-2019 and a growing population, the number of students enrolled at the elementary and high school level actually contracted. Spending on health – in a country with half of its children suffering from chronic malnutrition, one of the lowest health service levels, and one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world – remained around 1 percent of GDP. The military budget under Morales, however, expanded considerably, allowing the Armed Forces to purchase weapons and a ship and to at least try repeatedly to buy military aircraft.

The fiscal situation is worsened by the persistent inability of the national tax authority (SAT) to achieve its collection goals for almost a decade, as well as by the array of amnesties and fiscal privileges approved by the National Congress in 2015-19. As a result, the Morales administration ran up fiscal deficits from 1.1 percent of GDP in 2016 to 2.5 percent in 2019 – accelerating the increase in the stock of public debt from 24.7 percent of GDP in 2017 to 27.0 percent in 2019 – Guatemala’s highest in recent history.

  • Making things worse, the debt was principally handled through issuance of Treasury Bonds sold on the national and international markets at terms – higher rates and shorter maturity periods – less favorable to the Guatemalan government. Last September Congress passed a law, supposedly to formalize cattle growers and ranchers (a sector well known for not paying taxes), that many observers say is so badly written that it opens the door to more tax fraud and even money laundering by powerful drug cartels. ICEFI and even some members of Congress note this has the potential to cause even greater revenue losses in 2020.

Budgetary pressures seem very likely to continue rising this year, further complicating the new president’s challenges. The Constitutional Court in late November ruled that the Executive Branch must correct the way it calculates the transfers that the Constitution requires the Central Government make to the municipalities, the Judiciary, the San Carlos University (Guatemala’s only public university), and the federated and non-federated sports institutions. If this ruling is confirmed, it will generate a huge increase in those organizations’ budgets, seriously exceeding the government’s current fiscal capacity by more than US$1 billion (1.2 percent of GDP).

  • ICEFI’s analysis shows that the only way for the new government to overcome the public finance crisis is to undertake far-reaching fiscal reform – revitalization of tax administration, a credible fight against corruption and tax evasion, and correcting budget priorities. For a government more inclined to pro-business and liberal economic thinking, such reforms may represent a considerable political challenge.
  • President Giammattei also inherited a difficult political situation from his predecessor, whose conflict with the UN-supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and whose alliance with persons widely believed to be involved in corruption further undermined popular confidence in the government. The new president will be judged harshly if he fails to demonstrate early on a commitment to fight corruption, increase transparency, and make government more accountable. Accusations that he himself has been involved in corruption are already arising. He faces these tough economic and political challenges – with diminished resources, fiscal chaos, and with the previous administration’s allies considerably strengthened – at a time that Guatemala can ill afford to continue to stumble from crisis to crisis.

January 23, 2020

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. Data and charts supporting this article can be found by clicking here. This is the fourth in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries. The others are here, here and here.

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