Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sovereign Risk, Fiscal Policy, and Macroeconomic Stability

Sovereign Risk, Fiscal Policy, and Macroeconomic Stability. By Giancarlo Corsetti, Keith Kuester, Andre Meier, and Gernot J. Mueller
IMF Working Paper No. 12/33
January, 2012

This paper analyzes the impact of strained government finances on macroeconomic stability and the transmission of fiscal policy. Using a variant of the model by Curdia and Woodford (2009), we study a “sovereign risk channel” through which sovereign default risk raises funding costs in the private sector. If monetary policy is constrained, the sovereign risk channel exacerbates indeterminacy problems: private-sector beliefs of a weakening economy may become self-fulfilling. In addition, sovereign risk amplifies the effects of negative cyclical shocks. Under those conditions, fiscal retrenchment can help curtail the risk of macroeconomic instability and, in extreme cases, even stimulate economic activity.

The present paper analyzes how the ”sovereign risk channel” affects macroeconomic dynamics and stabilization policy. Through this channel, rising sovereign risk drives up private-sector borrowing costs, unless higher risk premia are offset by looser monetary policy. If the central bank is constrained in counteracting higher risk premia, sovereign risk becomes a critical determinant of macroeconomic outcomes. Its implications for stabilization policy have not been fully appreciated in earlier formal analyses, although they are likely to be of great importance for many advanced economies currently facing intense fiscal strain.

Building on the model proposed by C´urdia and Woodford (2009), we show that the sovereign risk channel makes the economy (more) vulnerable to problems of indeterminacy. In particular, private-sector beliefs about a weakening economy can become self-fulfilling, driving up risk premia and choking off demand. In this environment, a procyclical fiscal stance—that is, tighter fiscal policy during economic downturns–can help to ensure determinacy.

Further, we find that sovereign risk tends to exacerbate the effects of negative cyclical shocks: recessionary episodes will be deeper the stronger the sovereign risk channel, which in our specification is a nonlinear function of public-sector indebtedness. Moreover, in deep recessions that force the central bank down to the zero lower bound (ZLB) for nominal interest rates, sovereign risk delays the exit from the ZLB, hence prolonging macroeconomic distress.  The sovereign risk channel also has a significant bearing on fiscal multipliers. Specifically, the effect of government spending on aggregate output hinges on (i) the responsiveness of private-sector risk premia to indicators of fiscal strain; and (ii) the length of time during which monetary policy is expected to be constrained. Our analysis suggests that upfront fiscal retrenchment is less detrimental to economic activity (i.e., multipliers are smaller) in the presence of significant sovereign risk, as lower public deficits improve private-sector financing conditions. In relatively extreme cases where fiscal strains are severe and monetary policy is constrained for an extended period, fiscal tightening may even exert an expansionary effect.  That being said, fiscal retrenchment is no miracle cure. Indeed, all our simulations feature a deep recession even if tighter fiscal policy, under the aforementioned conditions, may stimulate economic activity relative to an even bleaker baseline.

As an additional caveat, we note that our analysis has focused on fiscal multipliers under a go-it-alone policy that does not involve external financial support at below-market rates.  Availability of such support could allow countries to stretch out the necessary fiscal adjustment as they benefit from lower funding costs and, possibly, positive credibility effects. Indeed, if and where announcements of future fiscal adjustment are credible, delaying some of the planned spending cuts remains a superior strategy in terms of protecting short-term growth.  How countries end up dealing with the challenges summarized here may prove to be a defining feature of global economic developments over the coming years.

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