Monday, December 29, 2014

29/12/2014: Historical Evidence on the Size of Fiscal Adjustments

A recent IMF paper looked at the historical precedents of large scale fiscal adjustments across advanced and emerging economies in the aftermath of the major fiscal crises. Escolano, Julio and Mulas-Granados, Carlos and Terrier, G. and Jaramillo, Laura paper titled "How Much is a Lot? Historical Evidence on the Size of Fiscal Adjustments" (IMF Working Paper No. 14/179. argue that "the sizeable fiscal consolidation required to stabilize the debt-to-GDP ratios in several countries in the aftermath of the global crisis raises a crucial question on its feasibility."

To answer this question, the authors look at historical evidence "from a sample of 91 adjustment episodes of countries during 1945-2012 that needed and wanted to adjust in order to stabilize debt to GDP."

"We find that in most cases fiscal adjustment is sizeable and the debt-to-GDP ratio stabilizes by the end of the episode, albeit at higher levels. In at least half of the episodes, countries managed to improve their primary balance by 5.4 percent of GDP (4.8 percent of GDP in cyclically adjusted terms). The sample distributions of the levels and changes in the primary balance (actual and cyclically adjusted) show that, while there are significant differences across advanced and developing countries in terms of the levels of primary balances achieved, the changes in primary balances are comparable across the two groups."

"The fiscal adjustment implemented was enough to close the primary gap in two-thirds of the episodes. This implies that debt stabilized, and in most cases was put on a downward trend." Given the hope-inspiring dynamics above, however, the follow-up is less impressive: "This does not however imply that debt returned to initial levels. While countries kept primary balances well above those observed before the adjustment episode, they did not sustain primary balances at the highest levels for prolonged periods of time. This suggests that countries make substantial efforts to stabilize debt but, once this is achieved, they see room to ease primary balances and do not necessarily seek to get back to the lower initial debt-toGDP ratio."

 "We find that consolidations tended to be larger when the initial deficit was high and adjustment efforts were sustained over time." In addition, "Several factors are found to be significantly associated with the size of fiscal adjustments. …The results also show that fiscal adjustment tended to be higher when accompanied by an easing of monetary conditions (as measured through a reduction in short-term interest rates) and, to a lesser extent, an improvement of credit conditions (measured as the change in credit to the private sector as a percent of GDP), especially in advanced economies."

Couple of figures. In the below,
CAPB: cyclically adjusted primary balance as a percent of potential GDP;
CAB: cyclically adjusted balance as a percent of potential GDP

Note the following interesting facts:

  • Ireland's fiscal adjustment post-2009 has been shallower than its adjustment post-1986. 
  • The cause of this shallower adjustment was the collapse of the credit markets in Ireland plus the on-going deleveraging of the real economy, not present in 1986 crisis. Also, the factors not accounted for in the list presented in the chart. In 1986 episode such factors were positively contributing to fiscal adjustment. In 2009 episode - they had negative impact. We can only speculate what these factors might have been, but clearly they are not related to external trade, or FDI. Which suggests they were domestic.
  • Ireland's adjustment was longer in the 1986 episode than in 2009 episode, but that is because the paper does not go beyond 2012. And the adjustment post-2009 episode is not completed still, even in 2014.
  • CAPB is the main driver of adjustment in 2009 episode, and is much larger than in 1986 episode. 
  • Ireland's fiscal adjustment since 2009 has been shallower than that of Greece since 2008, Portugal since 2010 and Spain since 2009, although it has been longer running that in Portugal and as long running as in Spain. In fact, the UK - a country that lent funds to Ireland for adjustment - is running similar magnitude fiscal adjustment as Ireland since 2009. A bit rich for us to be claiming to have taken most of fiscal pain in this crisis.

So what does the above tell us about Euro area peripherals' adjustments? IMF paper says that things tend to go well when:

  1. adjustment efforts were sustained over time, which suggests we are in for a much longer run than the Government's 'free from IMF' meme suggests;
  2. there is an an accompanying easing of monetary conditions, which we do have, courtesy of the ECB, except it is unclear how does this relate to the cases similar to the current crisis where monetary accommodation is simply fuelling asset bubbles and temporarily relieving mortgages pain, while doing nothing for growth; and
  3. to a lesser extent, by an improvement in credit conditions, which is yet to materialise, 5 years since 2009.

Not that any of the above will pause the IMF public statements about sustainability of adjustments everywhere and anywhere.

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