Debt in a Time of Protests


by Nemat Shafik

As the world economy continues to struggle, people are taking to the streets by the thousands to protest painful cuts in public spending designed to reduce government debt and deficits. This fiscal fury is understandable.

People want to regain the confidence they once had about the future when the economy was booming and more of us had jobs.

But after a protracted economic crisis, this will take planning, fair burden-sharing, and time itself.

If history is any guide, there is no silver bullet to debt reduction. Experience shows that it takes time to reduce government debt and deficits. Sustained efforts over many years will ultimately lead to success.

Most countries have made significant headway in rolling back fiscal deficits. By the end of next year in more than half of the world’s advanced economies, and about the same share of emerging markets, we expect deficits —adjusted for the economic cycle—to be at the same level or lower than before the global economic crisis hit in 2008.

But with a sluggish recovery, efforts at controlling debt stocks are taking longer to yield results, particularly in advanced economies. Gross public debt is nearing 80 percent of GDP on average for advanced economies—over 100 percent in several of them—and we do not expect it to stabilize before 2014-15.

So what can governments do to ease the pain and pave the way for successful debt reduction?

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Top 20 — iMFdirect’s Top 20 list


Three years after the launch of iMFdirect as a forum for discussing economic issues around the world, we look back at some of our most popular posts.

The IMF blog has helped stimulate considerable debate about economic policy in the current crisis, on events in Europe and around the world in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, on fiscal adjustment, on regulating the financial sector, and the future of macroeconomics–as economists learn lessons from the Great Recession.

As readers struggled to understand the implications of the crisis, our most popular post by far was IMF Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard’s Four Hard Truths, a look back at 2011 and the economic lessons for the future.

Here’s our Top 20 list of our most popular posts by subject (from more than 300 posts):

1.  Global Crisis: Four Hard Truths; Driving With the Brakes On

2.  Financial Stability: What’s Still to Be Done?

3.  Fiscal Policy:  Ten Commandments ; Striking the Right Balance

4.  Macroeconomic Policy: Rewriting the Playbook;  Nine Tentative Conclusions ; Future Study

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Tackling The Jobs Crisis: What’s To Be Done?


by Gerd Schwartz and Ruud de Mooij

Faced with a jobs crisis, policymakers the world over are digging deep into their policy toolkits to generate more employment. A recent study by the IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department argues that reforms of tax and expenditure policies offer great promise in helping countries confront the jobs crisis, including in the short term.

The study argues that improving employment outcomes, over and above what could be achieved through policies aimed at supporting the demand for goods and services by consumers and investors, requires actively supporting labor demand, strengthening incentives (or reducing disincentives) to work, and expanding training and job assistance, while preserving equity objectives.

The labor market challenge

The economic and social consequences of job losses since the onset of the global crisis have been enormous. However, as bad as the crisis has been for jobs, unemployment was already elevated before the crisis in many advanced and emerging economies. This would suggest that labor market challenges will not go away as the global economy recovers, and that policy measures are needed both to address structural employment issues and to improve the employment outlook in the short term.

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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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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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Going Broke? Why Pension Reforms Are Needed in Emerging Economies


By Mauricio Soto

We’re all getting older, and there’s no doubt that pension reform is a hot topic in the advanced economies. But it’s also critical in emerging economies.

Our analysis here at the IMF shows that across emerging economies pension spending is projected to rise as the population ages. On average, these spending increases are not that large. But reforms are needed to increase coverage of the system without making pension systems financially unsustainable over the long term.

Rising spending

In emerging Europe, we’ve seen how pension spending has increased from 7½ to 9 percent of GDP over the past two decades. Spending also increased rapidly in other emerging economies—albeit from much lower levels—going from 2 to 3 percent of GDP over the same period. It seems the relatively low spending in emerging economies outside Europe reflects relatively low coverage (generally only those in the formal sector are eligible) and younger populations.

Populations are aging rapidly in the emerging economies. As illustrated in Chart 1, a rather grim picture is developing where we see that the ratio of elderly to working population will more than double in the next four decades. In the future, there will be many more retirees consuming what fewer workers will produce.

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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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