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UNCTAD Policy Brief N° 24/2011: On The Brink : Fiscal Austerity Threatens A Global Recession

Policy brief by UNCTAD TDR, 2011

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Due to sluggish private demand, several advanced economies are hovering on the brink of a second bout of recession. Yet, in many of these countries political attention has turned to ways to cut fiscal deficits and reduce the domestic public debt. This has created a dangerous accumulation of risks for the world economy. The private sector can only successfully deleverage (i.e., reduce its debt) if someone else is willing to take on higher debt and support demand. If the private and the public sectors try to deleverage simultaneously, they must either find debtors elsewhere, or the economy will tailspin into a depression. As the developing world is both unable and unwilling to accept the role of debtor of last resort, dangerous pressures are building up. Unless there is a rapid policy turnaround, the world is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1930s. In today’s highly integrated global economy, the contractionary contagion will affect all countries. Emerging and developing economies need to prepare contingency plans.

On the brink: fiscal austerity
threatens a glObal recessiOn
Due to sluggish private demand, several advanced economies are hovering on the
brink of a second bout of recession. Yet, in many of these countries political attention
has turned to ways to cut fiscal deficits and reduce the domestic public debt. This has
created a dangerous accumulation of risks for the world economy. The private sector can
only successfully deleverage (i.e., reduce its debt) if someone else is willing to take on
higher debt and support demand. If the private and the public sectors try to deleverage
simultaneously, they must either find debtors elsewhere, or the economy will tailspin into
a depression. As the developing world is both unable and unwilling to accept the role of
debtor of last resort, dangerous pressures are building up. Unless there is a rapid policy
turnaround, the world is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1930s. In today’s highly
integrated global economy, the contractionary contagion will affect all countries. Emerging
and developing economies need to prepare contingency plans.


another fine mess
During 2011, most advanced economies
either suspended or reversed the expansionary
policies that had helped to avert the worst
symptoms of the global economic crisis.
Several governments hoped to bring about an
“expansionary contraction” where fiscal restraint
would improve private sector confidence
and foster a wave of private investment and
consumption demand. These hopes are rapidly
waning as new data points unambiguously
to a fully-fledged recession in key advanced
economies in 2012. The pain has brought no
gain. UNCTAD and others had warned early
on that “expansionary fiscal contraction” was
wishful thinking at best. Following in the footsteps
of many developing countries since the early
1980s, most advanced countries implementing
austerity policies have experienced, instead,
a “contractionary contraction”. Private sector
confidence is reaching new lows, as demand
from governments and from public sector
employees falls relentlessly. The new head of the
IMF, Christine Lagarde, echoed UNCTAD when
she warned the world economy has entered
“a dangerous new phase”. The vicious circle
induced by fiscal contraction, weak financial
institutions and financially fragile households is
fuelling a crisis of confidence and holding back
investment and job creation in the private and
public sectors simultaneously.


The disappointing results of “expansionary
contraction” illustrate persistent and fundamental
misconceptions about the functioning of the


U n i t e d n at i o n s C o n f e r e n C e o n t r a d e a n d d e v e l o p m e n t


key points
• High unemployment


is a more pressing
problem now than
fiscal imbalances.


• Fiscal austerity in the
current environment
will make matters
worse, not better.


• Contractionary
contagion will
effect all countries
-- emerging and
developing economies
need to prepare
contingency plans.


PO
LIC


Y B
RIE


Fn°24


macroeconomy. The Trade and Development
Report (2011) reviews scores of cases where
fiscal tightening did not trigger the sought-
after macroeconomic expansion but, rather,
had the opposite effect. These include a long
list of developing countries, whose damaging
experiences in the last three decades ought to
encourage current policymakers to do better.
Chart 1 (A and B), below, summarises the
experiences of countries receiving emergency
IMF support during the financial crises of
the late 1990s and early 2000s and also
during the present crisis. Chart 1.A contrasts
the forecasted impact on GDP growth of
contractionary policies in these economies (in
the horizontal axis), as expected in the Letters
of Intent signed between the IMF and national
governments, with their outcomes (in the
vertical axis). Scatterpoints along the 45 degree
line indicate cases where the expectations
had proven to be correct. Points above that
line indicate countries where the outcomes


DECEMBER   2 011




Chart sources: UNCTAD
(TDR 2011); IMF, Letters of
Intent, accessible at http://


www.imf.org/external/
np/cpid/default.aspx and


UNCTAD Globstat


A. GDP growth (Per cent)


B. General government balance (Per cent of GDP)


TUR 99


RUS 99


ARG 01


-20


-15


-10


-5


0


5


10


15


20


Forecast


A
ct


ua
l


TUR 99


THA 98


RUS 99
PHI 99


KOR 98


IND 98


BRA 99


ARG 01


-20


-15


-10


-5


0


5


10


15


20


-20 -15 -10 -5 0 5 10 15 20 -20 -15 -10 -5 0 5 10 15 20


-20 -15 -10 -5 0 5 10 15 20 -20 -15 -10 -5 0 5 10 15 20


Forecast


A
ct


ua
l


GEO 09
GRE 10


HUN 09


ICE 09


LAT 09


PAK 09
ROM 10


SER 09
UKR 09


-20


-15


-10


-5


0


5


10


15


20


Forecast


A
ct


ua
l


GEO 09
GRE 10


HUN 09


ICE 09


LAT 09


PAK 09


ROM 10
SER 09


UKR 09


-20


-15


-10


-5


0


5


10


15


20


Forecast


A
ct


ua
l


THA 98
PHI 99


KOR 98
IND 98


BRA 99


Chart 1: Comparisons between forecasts of gdp growth and fiscal balances in imf-sponsored programmes and actual values
(selected country/year )


dozens of developing countries since the early
1980s. Most tellingly, a detailed examination
of the impact of fiscal adjustment in 133 IMF-
supported programmes in 70 countries, carried
out by the IMF’s own Independent Evaluation
Office (IEO) noted “a tendency to adopt fiscal
targets based on overoptimistic assumptions
about the pace of economic recovery leading
inevitably to fiscal underperformance” and
“overoptimistic assumptions about the pace of
revival of private investment.” (IMF, 2003: vii).
The lesson that fiscal tightening systematically
fails to deliver fiscal consolidation is important
for countries in the current crisis, and for those
that are reeling under the pressure of declining
growth forecasts.


Further historical insights that resonate today
can be gleaned from the Great Depression
in the US, which actually included two sharp
downturns in succession. During the first wave
(August 1929 to March 1933), GDP fell sharply
each year until 1932, and declined modestly in
1933. Unemployment rose to unprecedented
levels. The recovery started after President
F.D. Roosevelt took office, in 1933, with annual
real GDP growth exceeding 9 per cent and
unemployment falling sharply. However, growth
was halted by another severe downturn in
1937-38, when real GDP fell by 3.4 per cent
and unemployment surged to 19 per cent. It
is now generally accepted that the second
downturn was induced by poor government
policy, especially the decision to tighten up
fiscal policy too early in the recovery.


exceeded expectations, and points below the
45 degree line are countries where expectations
were not achieved. It is evident on inspection
that in virtually all countries the policy outcomes
have systematically and unambiguously not
met expectations. In some cases the gaps are
substantial: in 1998, a GDP growth forecast of 5
per cent for Indonesia actually came in at minus
13 per cent, while Thailand was expected
to achieve 3.5 per cent growth but actually
contracted by 10.5 per cent. Similarly, in 2009,
Latvia and Ukraine experienced a staggering fall
in GDP that was three times as large as that
anticipated.


Given that GDP growth was normally much
lower than had been anticipated, it is not
surprising that fiscal balances were also worse
than expected (chart 1.B). When GDP growth
falters, tax revenues are also likely to fall
below expectations. At the same time, public
expenditures are bound to overshoot because
of the higher than expected benefits and
social security payments and other transfers
which must be made when the economy
slows down. The passive but strongly positive
role of these automatic stabilisers has been
widely understood since the 1930s. It was
also widely known that it is counterproductive
to raise taxes or cut public spending during
a recession because a fiscal contraction can
unleash a vicious circle of economic decline.
The adverse impact of many recent policy
experiences could have been anticipated, in the
light of economic theory and the experiences of




• Today’s fiscal deficits are
the consequence of the
crisis, not its cause
(chart 2).


• In developed countries
from 1997-2008, the
primary fiscal balance
ranged from -1.5% to
+3.2% of GDP, while the
overall balance ranged
from -4.3 to -0.4%.


• On average, the primary
balance during this
period was 0.8% and
the overall balance
-2.4% of GDP. (Even
when factoring in the
crisis years, the primary
balance during 1997-
2010 was on average
only -0.1% and the
overall balance -3.3%.)
It was only AFTER the
crisis that deficits slid
to today’s levels.


• Growth, and not the
deficit, is the appropriate
target for the moment.


in the Eurozone do not issue the currency in
which they are indebted, and they do not have
a reliable lender of last resort. Moreover, there is
added currency risk from the (unstated) option
to leave the Monetary Union. Experiences in
East Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa
and other developing areas affected by systemic
crises suggest that interest rates and spreads
within the Eurozone can decline only if the
competitiveness gap in its peripheral countries is
addressed effectively, while Germany stimulates
its domestic demand. In the meantime, the
financing needs of the peripheral countries
could be bridged by eurobonds and/or by
unlimited interventions of the ECB on the bond
markets, which could bring interest rates down
to bearable levels for the affected countries.


a new policy approach
is needed
The world stands on the brink of a double-
dip recession and a “lost decade” for many
countries. UNCTAD calls for a concerted and
co-ordinated expansionary policy alternative
including the following key elements:
* The countries threatened by recession and
deflation should avoid intensified austerity
measures because these are unlikely to produce
the intended outcomes and could propel the
world into a renewed bout of recession, or
even into an outright depression. Without an
increase in domestic demand, employment
and wages in the surplus countries, the most
likely outcome would be a new round of global
economic contraction. This is likely to trigger a
ripple of adverse effects at the international level,
including a collapse in trade and investment and
growing pressures for protectionism.


Misconceptions about debt
and interest rates
It is often claimed – and repeating the
conventional economic wisdom of the 1920s
-- that fiscal austerity is necessary in order to
maintain the confidence of the financial markets
in the sustainability of government budgets, and
to avoid inflation and damaging interest rate
hikes which would compromise the economic
recovery. However, the European example
does not support the case for austerity. Despite
the panic in some markets, and a temporary
increase of the ECB short-term policy rate by
around 0.5 per cent in the Spring of 2011,
average bond yields in the Eurozone rose only
from 3.3 per cent in October 2010 to 4.1 per
cent in October 2011. In the same vein, Japan,
the most heavily indebted advanced country
government, also enjoys the world’s lowest
long-term interest rate, and the United States,
with a government debt close to 100 per cent of
GDP, also enjoys historically low interest rates.


The large dispersion in interest rates between
members of the Eurozone which emerged in the
aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis has other
sources than government debt. For example,
although as a percentage of GDP Spain’s
government debt is smaller than Germany’s, the
country pays a much higher risk premium. The
Eurozone countries penalised with high spreads
vis-à-vis Germany are not those with high fiscal
deficits or government debt but, instead, those
running significant current account deficits. The
financial crises in several developing countries
also reinforce the argument that the spread
over hard currency interest rates reflect mainly
a currency risk, rather than a genuine risk of
government default. The vulnerable countries


Chart 2: Government revenues and expenditure and fiscal balance, Developed economies,
1997-2010 (% of current GDP, weighted average)


10


15


20


25


30


35


40


45


50


1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
-10


-8


-5


-3


0


3


5


8


10


Government revenues Government expenditure
Primary scal balance (right axis) Overall scal balance (right axis)




Reference
UNCTAD (TDR 2011), Trade and Development Report, 2011, Post-crisis policy challenges in the world economy,
United Nations publications, Sales No. E11.II.D.3, New York and Geneva.


Electronic versions of this report and related material can be found on
http://www.unctad.org/Templates/WebFlyer.asp?intItemID=6060&lang=1


contact
Heiner Flassbeck,


Director, UNCTAD,
Tel. +41 22 917 60 48


heiner.flassbeck@unctad.org


Press Office
+41 22 917 58 28


unctadpress@unctad.org
www.unctad.org


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* Fiscal space can protect vulnerable economies
against external shocks. Countries should seek
to enlarge their fiscal space through the use
of appropriate tax policies, and by building up
a strong fiscal position in times of economic
prosperity. Some of the transition economies
depicted in the charts above experienced a
particularly hard landing during the recent crisis,
because their fiscal space had been severely
reduced by imposing very low tax rates over
several years. This gave them little room to
manoeuvre when crisis struck, as they found
themselves unable to put into place the stimulus
measures used in other countries.


conclusion
There is a very real risk of new economic crises
erupting and, in today’s highly integrated world
economy; their impact will not be limited to
specific sectors or to well-defined regions. The
G-20 initially recognised this fact, but recent
actions have not been consistent. In particular,
the fiscal restraint in the countries with current
account surpluses and very low long-run
interest rates in Europe, point precisely in the
wrong direction. A fragile global economy has
a significant interest in the implementation of
expansionary, rather than contractionary fiscal
policies in key economies. Only the former can
open a path towards lower fiscal deficits and
falling public debt ratios. A “lost decade” for
the world economy would risk the development
gains achieved during the recent years, and
throw into question the ability of democratic
governments to tackle the most urgent
challenges of our age.


* Countries should see fiscal policies as
tools for growth and development, instead
of automatically adopting a fiscal-phobic
approach. Instead of asking whether their
fiscal deficit is “too big”, they sould consider
whether it is being used in the best way to
stimulate the economy. In the corporate sector,
high levels of debt are typically justifiable if the
borrowing costs are tolerable and the debt is
financing sustainable profit streams and long-
term firm growth. This approach is even more
appropriate in the case of government debt
because the current fiscal deficits are the
consequence rather than the cause of the
ongoing crisis (chart 2): in many cases, these
deficits are due to the transfer of private sector
debts to the public sector, making them the
wrong target for fiscal policy. Most importantly,
however, in terms of global economic revival is
the fact that, given the current lack of investor
and household confidence, governments must
play the role of “growth engine of last resort”.
Income can be generated only if somebody
spends, and experience suggests that, in a
recession, the only “someone” available is often
the government.


* Fiscal space can be shrunk or expanded
according to the mix of policies that governments
choose to implement, with a variable impact
on employment, tax revenues and economic
growth. In the countries depicted in charts
1.A and 1.B, tighter fiscal policies often led to
reduced investment, job losses, reduced fiscal
revenues, and stagnant or falling GDP growth.
In contrast, expansionary fiscal policy can boost
consumer demand and employment; it can also
increase public investment directly, and it can
indirectly stimulate private-sector investment
and incomes. These can lead to higher tax
revenues and a lower fiscal deficit, even if tax
rates remain unchanged. Social spending in
such areas as unemployment benefits, health
and housing can also be seen as promoting
recovery as they sustain consumption during
the crisis, in addition to their direct impact upon
poverty. Similarly, distinct tax policies can have
very different effects on the fiscal balance: tax
cuts that benefit lower income households can
have a stronger impact on aggregate demand
than cuts aimed at high-income households,
because poorer households are likely to spend
a larger share of their revenues.




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