Taking Stock: Public Finances Now Stronger in Many Countries


By Carlo Cottarelli

(Versions in  عربي, 中文EspañolFrançaisРусский日本語)

The slow global recovery is making fiscal adjustment more difficult around the world, but this doesn’t mean that little has been accomplished.

In fact, significant progress in many countries has been made during the past two years in strengthening their fiscal accounts after the 2008–09 deterioration.  The IMF’s latest Fiscal Monitor takes stock of this progress.

Deficits are lower, and in many cases debt is too

Let me first say something about advanced economies, which is where the most urgent fiscal problems exist.

Most advanced economies have made good progress lowering their fiscal deficits (the imbalance between spending and revenues). Deficits, adjusted for the economic cycle, fell by about ¾ of a percentage point of GDP in 2011 and 2012, and are projected to do so by about 1 percentage point of GDP in 2013.

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Beyond the Austerity Debate: the Deficit Bias in the post-Bretton Woods Era


By Carlo Cottarelli

(Version in Español)

The austerity vs. growth debate has raged in recent months, pitting those who argue that fiscal policy should be tightened more aggressively now to bring down high levels of debt, even though economic growth remains weak, against those who want to postpone the adjustment to better times. This is a critical issue for policymakers, perhaps the most important one in the short run.

And yet, this debate—which, mea culpa, I have myself contributed to―is attracting too much attention.

This is bad for two reasons:

  • The debate is driven, to some degree, by ideology and is therefore more focused on the relatively limited areas of disagreement than on the far broader areas of agreement. Most economists would agree that fiscal consolidation is needed in advanced economies, and that the average annual pace of adjustment during 2011-12―about 1 percentage point―is neither too aggressive nor excessively slow. Most economists would also agree that countries under pressure from markets have to adjust at a faster pace, while those that do not face such constraints have more time. Of course, there is disagreement on some aspects of the fiscal strategy, but it relates to specific country cases.
  • The debate is detracting attention from policy issues that may seem less urgent, but which are nevertheless critical in the medium term. I am referring to what I would call the institutional gaps in fiscal policymaking that still exist in most advanced and emerging economies. These gaps have contributed to a bias in the conduct of fiscal policy in favor of deficits that is behind many of the current problems.

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Escaping the Resource Curse


By Mauricio Villafuerte

(Version in عربي)

It reads like a script for a Hollywood movie—a poor protagonist happens upon an opportunity that has the potential of bestowing riches, but an evil curse threatens to spoil it all.

Unfortunately, it’s not a movie script. The scenario plays out repeatedly in many parts of the real world all the time. For many developing countries, managing natural resources and the increased revenues they bring is a tough haul.

Cue the extensive literature on the “resource curse” and the lack of consensus on how to run fiscal policy and manage budgets in resource-rich countries.

In some respects, this is like the “all-too-similar” sequel, because the tribulations associated with how to best manage natural resources, such as oil, minerals, and gas, seem to endure so that resource-rich developing countries are never quite free of them.

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How to Get the Balance Right: Fiscal Policy At a Time of Crisis


By Anders Borg and Christine Lagarde

Last autumn was a turbulent time for Europe. The debt crisis deepened and financial markets became embroiled in turmoil, driven by fears of widespread restructuring of public debt. The crisis has harmed growth, increased unemployment, and left a large number of people less protected.

We are now seeing some signs of stabilization. Most countries are reducing their deficits and even if debt ratios are still rising, the return back to fiscal health has begun.

The International Monetary Fund and the Swedish Ministry of Finance are hosting an international conference in Stockholm on May 7-8, with the purpose of sharing knowledge and providing guidance on the best way to achieve fiscal consolidation, and on the role that effective fiscal policy frameworks and institutions can play in this endeavor.

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Disappearing Deficits


By Tim Irwin

Suppose a government must reduce its budget deficit. Perhaps it made a commitment to do so; perhaps investors are beginning to doubt its ability to repay debt. It could cut spending or raise taxes, but that is painful and unpopular. What can it do?

In our work at the IMF, we sometimes discover that governments choose to employ accounting devices that make the deficit smaller without actually causing any pain, and without actually improving public finances.

In ideal accounting, this would not be possible. In real accounting, it sometimes is.

How the devices work

Some governments, for example, have been able to reduce their reported deficits by taking over companies’ pensions schemes. The government’s obligation to make future pension payments has a real cost, but it doesn’t count as a liability in the accounting. So when the government receives a pension scheme’s assets from the company, it can treat the receipt of those assets as revenue that reduces its deficit.

Many other governments have been able to defer spending, without significantly reducing it in the long run, by entering into public-private partnerships. Under these contracts, a private company builds and maintains an asset like a road or a hospital. In return, the government agrees to pay the company for its costs over 20 or 30 years. In a sense, the government has bought the asset on an installment plan, but government accounting seldom counts this obligation as a liability.

In each of the above cases—and in others analyzed in my note, Accounting Devices and Fiscal Illusions—the government’s deficit is lower at first, but only at the expense of bigger future deficits.

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Wising Up to the Rising Costs of Aging Populations


Jeremy CliftJeremy Clift

Countries around the world are headed for a dramatic demographic transformation caused by falling fertility and rising life expectancy.  Particularly in advanced economies, but also in other parts of the world, populations are getting older and this will affect every dimension of life—from the shape of the family to the shape of the world order.

Most problematically, perhaps, it could throw into question the ability of many countries to provide a decent standard of living for the old without imposing a crushing burden on the young.

The latest issue of the IMF’s Finance & Development magazine explores the consequences on society of aging populations. The world’s population will reach 7 billion this year and is projected to exceed 9 billion in 2050. But in the lead article, Ronald Lee and Andrew Mason say that hidden behind these headline numbers are important changes in the age distribution of the population. Continue reading

Ten Commandments for Fiscal Adjustment in Advanced Economies


By Olivier Blanchard and Carlo Cottarelli

(Version in عربي   中文    Français    Русский   Español)

Advanced economies are facing the difficult challenge of implementing fiscal adjustment strategies without undermining a still fragile economic recovery. Fiscal adjustment is key to high private investment and long-term growth. It may also be key, at least in some countries, to avoiding disorderly financial market conditions, which would have a more immediate impact on growth, through effects on confidence and lending. But too much adjustment could also hamper growth, and this is not a trivial risk. How should fiscal strategies be designed to make them consistent with both short-term and long-term growth requirements?

We offer ten commandments to make this possible. Put simply, what advanced countries need is clarity of intent, an appropriate calibration of fiscal targets, and adequate structural reforms. With a little help from monetary policy, and from their (emerging market) friends.

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