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Defining The Government'S Debt And Deficit

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  • Timothy C. Irwin

Abstract

Although the budget deficit and the public debt feature prominently in political debate and economic research, there is no agreement about how they should be measured. They can be defined for different sets of public institutions, including the nested sets corresponding to central government, general government, and the public sector, and, for any definition of government, there are many measures of the debt and deficit, including those generated by four kinds of accounts (cash, financial, full accrual, and comprehensive), which can be derived from four nested sets of assets and liabilities. Each debt and deficit measure says something about public finances, but none tells the whole story. Each is also vulnerable to manipulation, and is likely to be manipulated if it is subject to a binding fiscal rule or target. Narrow definitions of government encourage the shifting of spending to entities outside the defined perimeter of government. Narrow definitions of debt and deficit encourage operations involving off-balance-sheets assets and liabilities, while broad measures are susceptible to the mismeasurement of on-balance-sheet assets and liabilities. Reviewing the literature on these issues, the paper concludes that governments should publish several measures of the debt and deficit in a form that clearly reveals their interrelationships.

Suggested Citation

  • Timothy C. Irwin, 2015. "Defining The Government'S Debt And Deficit," Journal of Economic Surveys, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 29(4), pages 711-732, September.
  • Handle: RePEc:bla:jecsur:v:29:y:2015:i:4:p:711-732
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    3. António Afonso & José Alves, 2017. "Stock-Flow Adjustments and Interest Rates," Working Papers Department of Economics 2017/05, ISEG - Lisbon School of Economics and Management, Department of Economics, Universidade de Lisboa.
    4. Timothy C. Irwin, 2015. "The whole elephant: A proposal for integrating cash, accrual, and sustainability-gap accounts," OECD Journal on Budgeting, OECD Publishing, vol. 14(3), pages 1-18.
    5. Wen Wang & Bo Zhao, 2017. "Transparency in state debt disclosure," Working Papers 17-10, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
    6. Afonso, António & Alves, José, 2019. "Short and long-term interest rate risk: The sovereign balance-sheet nexus," Finance Research Letters, Elsevier, vol. 31(C).
    7. Zharku Lutfi, 2018. "Irregular Receipts Leading to Budget Deficits in Kosovo," Baltic Journal of Real Estate Economics and Construction Management, Sciendo, vol. 6(1), pages 100-115, August.
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    9. Lutfi Zharku, 2018. "Budget Deficits, Public Debt and Irregular Receipts: Kosovo case," Acta Universitatis Danubius. OEconomica, Danubius University of Galati, issue 14(5), pages 268-285, OCTOBER.
    10. Benedykt OPALKA, 2020. "Conditions and Possibilities of Long-Term Public Debt Management," RAIS Journal for Social Sciences, Research Association for Interdisciplinary Studies, vol. 4(1), pages 110-119, May.
    11. László, Csaba, 2018. "A magánnyugdíjpénztári rendszer "elszámolása" ["Reckoning up" the private pension system]," Közgazdasági Szemle (Economic Review - monthly of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), Közgazdasági Szemle Alapítvány (Economic Review Foundation), vol. 0(9), pages 861-902.

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