U.S. Fiscal Policy: A Tough Balancing Act

Deniz IganBy Deniz Igan

(Version in Español)

Much has changed on the fiscal front since we started worrying about U.S. fiscal sustainability. The federal government budget deficit has fallen sharply in recent years―from almost 12 percent of GDP in 2009 to less than 7 percent in 2012. And recent budget reports show that the deficit is shrinking faster than expected only a few months ago, to a projected 4½ percent of GDP for the current fiscal year, which ends September 30. Plus, health care cost growth has slowed down dramatically since the Great Recession, alleviating the pressure on public health care programs at least temporarily.

Does this mean we can stop worrying? Not quite. Recent developments certainly mean that things are better than we thought just a few years ago and the fiscal adjustment needed to restore sustainability is smaller. But if the choice and timing of policy measures is not right, the deficit reduction may turn out to be too much in the short run—stunting the economic recovery—and not enough in the long run.

So, in our recent annual check-up of the U.S. economy, our advice is to slow the pace of fiscal adjustment this year—which would help sustain growth and job creation—but to speed up putting in place a medium-term road map to restore long-run fiscal sustainability.

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Debt in a Time of Protests

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.

Promises, Promises. Better Measuring the Effect of Pension Reform

We all hope to retire one day. Our pensions hold the promise of that. Good fiscal policy means thinking about ho w policy decisions—involving long-term promises, such as pensions—affect government finances both today and in the future. With pension reform a priority for so many countries, it is a problem that traditional deficit and debt indicators focus on the health of public finances today, but fail to capture the future impact of pension promises. We propose a new indicator—the “pension-adjusted” budget balance—that can help measure when changes in pension policies are improving or worsening long-term fiscal health. Used as a complement to traditional indicators, this new indicator could help avoid incentives to delay or even reverse pension reforms.

Shifting Gears: Where the Rubber Meets the Fiscal Road

Undertaking a sizable fiscal adjustment is a lot like driving up a tall mountain: it’s hard work, it can take a long time, and you don’t want to run out of fuel partway up the incline. Countries are starting the climb, cutting back government deficits and debt levels, but according to our analysis often current plans aren’t enough to get countries where they need and want to go. The plans in place are large by historical standards, which brings with it difficult choices, and particular risks and uncertainties. Let me fill you in on what these are.

Global Recovery Strengthens, Tensions Heighten

The world economic recovery is gaining strength, but it remains unbalanced. Earlier fears of a double dip recession—which we did not share—have not materialized. And, although rising commodity prices conjure the specter of 1970s-style stagflation, they appear unlikely to derail the recovery. However, the unbalanced recovery confronts policy makers with difficult choices. In most advanced economies, output is still far below potential. Low growth implies that unemployment will remain high for many years to come. And the problems in Europe’s periphery are particularly acute. On the other end of the spectrum, emerging market countries must avoid overheating in the face of closing output gaps and higher capital flows. The need for careful design of macroeconomic policies at the national level, and coordination at the global level, may be as important today as they were at the peak of the crisis two years ago.

Exploring Economic Policy Frontiers After the Crisis: 2010 IMF Research Conference

The crisis has forced economists and policy makers to go back to their drawing boards. Where did they go wrong, and what implications does the crisis have for both macroeconomic theory and macroeconomic policy making? This was the topic of this year’s IMF Jacques Polak Research Conference. The twelve papers presented at the conference provided rich fodder for discussion. Here, Olivier Blanchard shares some flavor of the major themes, including: (i) the increased attention to fiscal policy; (ii) the scope for monetary policy to lessen the adverse ‘real economy’ effects of financial disruptions; (iii) the role of international capital flows in weakening financial stability; and (iv) the prominence of regulatory issues and the interplay with the real economy.

Weekend in Washington: Cooperating Our Way Out of Crisis

This past weekend in Washington DC, as the economic leaders of 187 countries gathered for the Annual Meetings of the IMF and World Bank, the mood was tense. The world’s finance ministers and central bank governors were concerned because the global recovery is fragile. And, on top of the risks to the outlook, there is concern that the strong international cooperation that was shown during the crisis is in danger of receding. So, after the meetings, was the atmosphere less tense? Yes...and no. The world made some progress over the weekend. But we shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory. We are not yet out of the woods. The IMF’s analysis indicates that improved economic policy coordination, over the next five years, could increase global growth by 2.5 percent, create or save 30 million jobs, and lift 33 million more out of poverty. With such high potential returns, can we really afford each to go our own way?

Unwinding Public Interventions in the Financial Sector

The IMF held a high-level conference last week on unwinding public interventions in the financial sector. Insightful discussions took place among policymakers, academics, and the private sector, highlighting several areas where a broad consensus appears to be emerging, as well as some challenges that policymakers are about to face.

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