Top Five Policy Priorities to Brighten America’s Economic Future

Deniz IganBy Deniz Igan

(version in Español)

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when science fiction could make us look forward to a better world. We had uplifting visions of the future in shows like Star Trek and Back to the Future. Today, the menu of options only offers a dystopian world ruined by poverty and violence (think The Hunger Games, Divergent, or Elysium).

It sure is easy to get pessimistic these days. Six years after the financial crisis, the recovery in the United States has been fragile and weaker than anything we have seen in the post-WWII period. Growth figures, in large part, have been serial disappointments, disrupted by government shutdowns, debt ceiling showdowns, or meteorologically-triggered slowdowns.

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Public Finances Are on the Mend, but No Clean Bill of Health

By Sanjeev Gupta and Martine Guerguil

(Version in Español FrançaisРусский中文, and 日本語)

We’ve had a spate of good news on the economic front recently. Does this mean that we are finally out of the fiscal woods? According to our most recent Fiscal Monitor report, not yet, as public debt remains high and the recovery uneven.

First, the good news. The average deficit in advanced economies has halved since the 2009 peak. The average debt ratio is stabilizing. Growth is strengthening in the United States and making a comeback in the euro area, and should benefit from the slower pace of consolidation this year. Emerging markets and developing countries have maintained their resilience, in part thanks to the policy buffers accumulated in the pre-crisis period. Talks of tapering in the United States have left a few of them shaken, but not (quite) stirred.

But there is still some way to go. The average debt ratio in advanced economies, although edging down, sits at historic peaks, and we project it will still remain above 100 percent of GDP by 2019 (Chart 1). The recovery is still vulnerable to several downside risks, including those stemming from the lack of clear policy plans in some major economies. The recent bouts of financial turmoil have raised concerns that the anticipated tightening of global liquidity could expose emerging markets and low-income countries to shifts in investor sentiment and more demanding debt dynamics.

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Still Some Hurdles On The Fiscal Path

Martine GuerguilBy Martine Guerguil

(Versions in 中文, Français日本語, Русский, and Español)

Five years into the crisis, the fiscal landscape remains challenging. On the positive side, deficit-cutting efforts and the first signs of recovery reduced the fiscal stress felt in many advanced economies; but debt ratios often remain at historical peaks. At the same time, slowing growth and rising borrowing costs, combined with unabated demands for improved public services, puts pressure on government budgets in emerging market economies.

So we created  an index of ‘fiscal difficulty’ that shows the biggest challenge ahead for advanced economies is to maintain budget surpluses until debt ratios return to lower levels.  We expect this will take several years.

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The Fiscal Milestone: Achievements, Fatigue, and Prospects

Fiscal Monitor

By Carlo Cottarelli

(Versions in عربي 中文, 日本語, and Español)

The 2008–09 global economic crisis pushed public debt ratios of advanced economies to levels never seen before during peacetime. These high debt levels expose countries to a loss of market confidence and, ultimately, damage long-term growth prospects.  Since 2010 advanced economies have been on a journey: the goal is to bring their public finances back to safer territory. They are in it for the long haul, not a sprint, and, as a redress of the large fiscal imbalances created by the crisis, without derailing the still fragile economic recovery, it requires a steady and gradual pace of adjustment—at least for countries not subject to market pressures.

This year we see the process of gradual fiscal adjustment reaching two symbolic milestones. First, the average deficit of advanced economies as a share of GDP will fall to half of its 2009 level at the peak of the crisis. Second, the average debt ratio will stop rising, after increasing steadily since 2007. Indeed, it will actually decline slightly.

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Taking Stock: Public Finances Now Stronger in Many Countries

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.

U.S. Fiscal Policy: Avoiding Self-Inflicted Wounds

In late 2012 or early 2013 the U.S. federal government will again reach a statutory borrowing limit and will not be able to issue additional debt. Why is this a problem? First, because the federal government is spending considerably more than it collects in taxes; and second, because spending and tax collections are not synchronized. As a result, if the ceiling is not raised in time, the government would need to cut spending drastically, curtailing important government functions, with detrimental effects on output and employment. And just the mere possibility that the government might have to delay a payment on a bond could unsettle financial markets.

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