Structural Budget Deficits and Sustainability of Fiscal Positions in the European Union
According to the Pact for Stability and Growth (PSG), in the medium term the net deficit should be close to balance or in surplus. We question the use of the net deficit as the only medium-term budgetary objective and as the main indicator for the assessment of fiscal policy. Hence, for assessing the short-term fiscal stance, we propose to analyze cyclically adjusted budget balances, whereas an assessment of sustainability of fiscal positions in the medium-term should be based on structural primary gaps. The OECD, the EU and the IMF calculate structural budget balances by subtracting the balance of several cyclical revenue components and only one cyclical expenditure component from the overall net deficit, under the assumption of constant output elasticities. By means of a bootstrapping simulation we demonstrate that the assumptions of these traditional methods are too restrictive. They do not even allow to determine the sign of the cyclical balances for the EU-countries. To estimate structural budget balances, we suggest an alternative approach which is based on a statistical concept and identifies structural balances as a smooth trend. Medium term sustainability of fiscal policy is analysed within the concept of structural primary gaps. This indicator shows to what extent the current structural primary balance deviates from the primary surplus that stabilizes the debt to GDP ratio. Again, the meaning of structural is based on the same statistical concept of trend extraction. For the EU-countries structural primary gaps are calculated, referring to the net debt and gross debt concept. According to the gross debt concept and based on forecasts of the OECD Economic Outlook (December 1997), fiscal policy of all EU-countries can be considered as sustainable at least in 1999. Even if fiscal policy is already deemed sustainable in the medium-term, in some of the EU-countries structural balances will have to be further improved in order to bring fiscal positions close to balance or in surplus. Only then, compliance with the provisions of the PSG is assured.
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