US and UK governments are on course for fiscal calamity
These cash-flow-based measures of government indebtedness, however, are backward oriented – reflecting past outcomes and policies. To provide policy-relevant information, government indebtedness metrics should also include prospective debt – that which will be accumulated in the future under the continuation of current fiscal policies. This more comprehensive and forward-looking metric of a government’s ‘fiscal imbalance’ would be more useful as a reference point for debating how national fiscal policies might be changed for the better.
The governments of many western developed economies have sizeable fiscal imbalances embedded in their fiscal policies – that is, their projected government receipts fall well short of future expenditure commitments under their current fiscal policies. A key reason for such large fiscal imbalances is that most of these nations have large baby-boomer cohorts in their populations that are entering retirement and will collect support payments from public pension and health care programmes while government taxes and other receipts are insufficient to fund those payment commitments and to fulfil other responsibilities for public service provision.
The fiscal imbalance measure informs on the total prospective shortfall of government resources relative to government expenditure commitments. But this measure does not indicate which generations contribute, and how much, to the total imbalance. Additional generational imbalance measures, which include past and projected resource shortfalls on account of specific generations could also be reported in official budget documents. Generational imbalance measures would be useful to analyse the distribution of fiscal costs across current and future generations under alternative adjustments to government fiscal policies. A new IEA monograph by this author, The Government Debt Iceberg, explores the extent of government indebtedness in the United States and EU nations in terms of fiscal and generational imbalance metrics.
For the United States, the monograph calculates and reports fiscal and generational measures based on the Congressional Budget Office’s March 2012 Budget Outlook. It finds the US federal fiscal imbalance to be 9.0 per cent of the present value of US GDP or 19.7 per cent of the present value of US payrolls under its current fiscal policies. It means that eliminating the fiscal imbalance embedded in current fiscal policies requires raising taxes or reducing expenditure commitments, separately or in combination, to the tune of 9 percent of GDP – beginning immediately and maintained throughout the future
Fiscal imbalances are also reported for 25 European Union countries based on government budget information published by Eurostat. EU fiscal imbalances average 13.5 per cent of the present value of EU GDP. Resolving this fiscal imbalance would require an immediate and permanent levy of 27.2 per cent on annual labour compensation or, alternatively, a 23.2 per cent levy on annual consumption in EU nations on average. For individual EU member states, fiscal imbalances range from 3.7 per cent for Estonia to 32.8 per cent for Ireland. The major EU countries of Germany, France, Spain, the UK and Italy have fiscal imbalances close to the EU average: ranging from 15.4 per cent for Spain to 12.1 per cent for Italy. The United Kingdom’s fiscal imbalance of 13.6 per cent is close to the EU average.
Such large fiscal imbalances portend significantly higher taxes, reduced government expenditures, or some combination of those two policies in the United States and in EU nations. The earlier that governments make corrective fiscal adjustments, the easier will it be for those affected to prepare for their future economic needs and security.
Jagadeesh Gokhale is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of The Government Debt Iceberg.