Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Democratic Accountability, Deficit Bias, and Independent Fiscal Agencies

An IMF working paper by Xavier Debrun "illustrates key features of a model of independent fiscal agencies, and in particular the need (1) to incorporate the intrinsically political nature of fiscal policy - which precludes credible delegation of instruments to unelected decisionmakers - and (2) to focus on characterizing "commitment technologies" likely to credibly increase fiscal discipline."

The fiscal legacy of the economic and financial crisis of 2008-09 brought to the fore serious concerns about the capacity of governments to maintain sustainable public finances. Several vulnerable countries came under severe market pressure, while government bond yields in countries considered so far as safe havens also started rising. Of particular concern is the fact that the large fiscal deficits and ballooning government debts caused by the crisis came on top of already substantial inherited liabilities and ahead of intensifying demographic pressures on entitlement spending. These trends are on a collision course with the intertemporal budget constraint, making ambitious and sustained consolidations unavoidable.  The challenge is formidable and markets are on the watch, pushing governments to look for ways to firm up the credibility of their commitments to sound public finances.

While formal fiscal policy rules have long been used to contain tendencies toward fiscal profligacy (e.g. Fabrizio and Mody, 2006; and Debrun and others, 2008), it has been argued that many of the limitations and failures associated with numerical rules—most notably their inflexibility in the face of unusual circumstances—could be overcome by establishing nonpartisan agencies. Through independent analysis, assessments, and forecasts, such bodies could enhance policymakers’ incentives to deliver sustainable policies.

Despite a fairly active public debate, no full-fledged theory has either established the desirability of such institutions or derived first-order principles likely to secure their effectiveness. In a sense, this is hardly surprising, as one can only theorize about a welldefined object. In reality, the literature on independent fiscal agencies covers a wide array of specific (and sometimes outlandish) academic proposals as well as a number of existing institutions, including the Central Planning Bureau in the Netherlands, the High Council of Finance in Belgium, and the more recent Swedish Fiscal Policy Council and United Kingdom’s Office of Budget Responsibility. At best, existing papers propose a taxonomy (Debrun and others, 2009; Calmfors, 2010), but there currently is no consensus on the tasks these agencies should be assigned, what institutional form they should take, and on whether they should complement or instead substitute for a rules-based framework.

Expositions of the rationale for non-partisan agencies nevertheless share a common thread, the canonical illustration of which is Wyplosz (2005). First, there is a review of the many reasons why fiscal policy tends to systematically deviate from a socially optimal solution, with often an emphasis on common pool problems, short-termism, and time-inconsistency.  Second, the author(s) lament(s) the ineffectiveness of fiscal policy rules. It is argued that the main problem with the latter is that the simplicity required for their smooth operation limits their appropriateness outside normal circumstances, undermining their credibility as soon as uncommon conditions prevail. For example, deficit ceilings fail to trigger discipline in good times—when compliance is more likely to result from automatic stabilizers rather than conscious actions—but bind in bad times, forcing undesirable procyclical contractions. Third, the author(s) call(s) on our sense of déjà vu to draw a parallel with the case for central bank independence, which is also based on the idea of an expansive bias affecting unconstrained discretionary policies, and on the manifest failure of rigid rules (e.g. caps on the growth of certain monetary aggregates) to address that bias.

The aim of this paper is to assess the theoretical framework anchoring the policy debate on politically independent fiscal agencies. After setting-up a basic model of fiscal policy (Section II), I show that the parallel with independent central banks is theoretically flawed because most models of fiscal bias cannot demonstrate why elected officials would want to establish such institutions in the first place (Section III). In addition, the idea of fiscal delegation is misleading because the very fear of delegating may motivate principled, yet baseless opposition from politicians. I then suggest—still using simple formal illustrations— that any full-fledged theory of fiscal agencies should (1) incorporate the intrinsically political nature of fiscal policy and the infeasibility of delegating policy instruments to unelected officials and (2) focus on characterizing mechanisms that encourage ex-post compliance with ex-ante commitments (“commitment technologies”) to fiscal discipline (Section IV). Some practical conclusions are drawn in Section V.

Concluding remarks:
The paper discussed from a theoretical perspective the role of independent fiscal agencies in enhancing fiscal discipline. The key point is that the effectiveness of such institutions depends on their capacity to deal with the root cause of deficit bias, including informational asymmetries between voters—the only legitimate principal in the policy game—and politicians. A number of practical implications emerge:

1. The delegation of fiscal policy prerogatives to unelected officials is unworkable from a positive perspective, reinforcing the normative argument against fiscal delegation emanating from Alesina and Tabellini (2007). The model indeed illustrates that the very decision to delegate macro-relevant dimensions of fiscal policy—such as the level of the deficit, as suggested by Wyplosz (2005)—simply violates participation constraints of elected decisionmakers.

2. An independent fiscal agency is more likely to credibly enhance fiscal discipline if a broad mandate allows it to address the various manifestations of the deficit bias (from creative accounting to masking policy slippages or biasing revenue forecasts). This includes having the discretion to make normative assessments of the fiscal stance—albeit within the boundaries of elected politician’s own ex-ante commitments—in the light of cyclical conditions, public debt dynamics, and risks to public sector’s long-term solvency.

3. The agency’s effectiveness is likely to be greater if it receives specific instruments to trigger a public debate where elected officials would have to publicly explain slippages (with respect to ex-ante targets) deemed inappropriate by the agency. By becoming a reliable source on the overall quality of fiscal policy, the agency can help voters identify ex-post deviations related to “bad policies” (as opposed to “bad luck”) and hold policymakers accountable. This is a task that rules-based fiscal frameworks—bound to remain simple to be operational—cannot by themselves deliver. Indeed, mere deviations from preset benchmarks do not always signal policy mistakes.

4. As politicians may be reluctant to bear the short-term costs of deviations from ex-ante commitments, an effective fiscal agency ideally requires a degree of political independence enshrined in primary legislation (Constitutional or framework law) and guaranteed by ringfenced, multi-year budget appropriations or rules-based extra-budgetary financing (e.g.  through a fixed transfer from the central bank) commensurate with the agency’s tasks.
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