Don’t Rule it Out: Simplifying Fiscal Governance in Europe

By Petya Koeva Brooks and Gerd Schwartz

The 2008 global financial crisis and its aftermath have tested the European Union’s (EU) fiscal governance framework—the rules, regulations, and procedures that influence how budgetary policy is planned, approved, carried out, and monitored. Given the distinctive nature of EU integration, the framework aims to discipline national fiscal policies to prevent adverse spillovers to other countries and distortions to the conduct of the euro area’s common monetary policy.

The build-up of fiscal imbalances, however, revealed gaps in the framework. Public debt in the European Union soared following the crisis in 2008 to an average of around 95 percent in 2014—almost 30 percentage points above its average pre-crisis level (Chart 1).

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Fiscal Consolidation: Striking the Right Balance

The debate on austerity vs. growth has gained in intensity, as countries in Europe and elsewhere struggle with low growth, high debt, and rising unemployment. In essence, policymakers are being asked to tackle a continuation of the worst crisis since the Great Depression. This would be no easy task under any circumstances. But it is made considerably harder by the fact that a number of countries need to engage in fiscal consolidation simultaneously. Complicating the picture further is the fact that monetary policy in most advanced economies is approaching the limits of what it technically can do to stimulate activity, while global growth remains weak.

Making Goldilocks Happy

We have calculated that an increase in annual long-term economic growth of just a quarter of a percentage point could set in place a virtuous circle that would lead, after ten years, to a decline in the public debt-to-GDP ratio by 6 percentage points. This is because higher growth makes it easier to run a primary surplus and lowers the public debt-to-GDP ratio directly. This in turn lowers the interest rate, which in turn boosts economic growth.

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