By Carlo Cottarelli, director - IMF’s Fiscal Affairs Department, and Philip Gerson, deputy director - IMF's Fiscal Affairs Department
We're one month into 2013 and if past experience is any guide, by now many people will have all but forgotten the promises they made about the things they planned to do over the coming year. It's a time-honored tradition in many countries for people to make resolutions at the start of the new year, usually involving things that are good for them, like achieving a healthier weight. Unfortunately, it's also traditional that these commitments quickly fall by the wayside, only to be taken up again next year, usually with the same results.
But unlike many of these resolutions, the ones made by most advanced economies to reduce their 2012 fiscal deficits were by and large kept. The average headline deficit in these countries fell by about three-fourths percent of GDP last year, bringing the cumulative deficit decline to 3% of GDP since budget shortfalls peaked in 2009. This is good news. Indeed, in some countries deficits have fallen to the point where debt ratios have already begun to decline, and in several others debt ratios have stabilized.
But there is another group of countries -- which unfortunately contains some of the very largest economies -- where debt ratios are continuing to rise rapidly or have stabilized, but at very elevated levels. Many of these countries will need to undertake significant deficit reduction in the coming years to return debt ratios to more sustainable levels, and even those countries where debt ratios have stabilized or started falling will need to commit to keeping their fiscal positions strong for many years to return public debt to safer levels.
In some countries, a few other resolutions would also be in order. The United States and Japan need to resolve to adopt and begin enacting credible medium-term plans to get their public finances back in shape. The short-term fiscal stimulus recently introduced by the Japanese authorities makes it even more imperative to tie down the longer term path for debt and deficits. And while the United States has thankfully avoided the so-called fiscal cliff, it also needs to resolve to increase the debt ceiling expeditiously (and not just for a few months).
The concerns about the impact of deficit reductions on growth are valid, but the effect will depend on the specific design of fiscal adjustment policies, as well as on their timing. Under normal circumstances, when the government cuts spending by $1, output normally falls by less than that because some of the resources that used to be employed to produce goods and services for the public sector will be freed up to produce for the private sector instead.
But with a weak private sector, cuts in government spending are not partially offset by higher spending by households and firms. And with interest rates in many advanced economies close to zero, there is little scope for central banks to limit the impact of fiscal tightening by loosening monetary policy. That's why governments that can afford to move gradually need to be careful not to tighten policy too much now.
However, the current weak conditions will not last forever. As private sector balance sheets are mended and banks recover their lending capacity, private demand should pick up. When this happens, lower government demand for goods and services will be replaced in part by stronger private demand. Of course, this will require that monetary conditions remain relaxed for a long time. This is what the Fed has recently reiterated and what other central banks should do. This means that, when financing conditions allow, countries that need to tighten policy should resolve to reduce their fiscal deficits in a gradual and steady manner that avoids excessive front-loading, a position we have advocated for some time.
The emphasis should be on both "gradual" and "adjustment;" just postponing all adjustment to the future would hardly be credible. The need to avoid excessive front loading has been recognized in many countries that are currently implementing Fund-supported adjustment programs. For example, in response to slow growth fiscal targets have been revised in both Ireland and Portugal, allowing for a more gradual pace of consolidation than would have been possible if the original deficit targets had been maintained.
Making resolutions is easy. Keeping them is hard, even when we know they are good for us. In the current uncertain global environment, the deficit reduction that some advanced economies need to achieve will be difficult indeed. Whether reducing excessive deficits or extra bodyweight, however, gradual but steady progress is the safest and surest way to a healthier future. Here's hoping countries -- and the rest of us -- make good on this year's resolutions.