The mixed success of the Stability and Growth Pact

Jasper De Jong, Niels Gilbert 15 January 2019

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The Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) might well be Europe’s favourite scapegoat. In the words of Darvas et al. (2018), it “generated excessive fiscal austerity during the crisis, thereby contributing to aggravating and prolonging its economic, social, and political consequences”. Politicians have echoed such remarks, with Dimitris Papadimoulis, vice-President of the European Parliament, referring to the SGP in November 2016 as “rendering a growth-oriented policy almost impossible for a growing number of member states”. 

On the other side of the spectrum, former German minister of finance Wolfgang Schaüble noted that the SGP had “lost its bite” already back in 2003, when France and Germany escaped punishment for breaching the rules (Schaüble 2012). According to Daniel Gros (2016), the SGP “died a second time” when fines for Portugal and Spain were cancelled in 2016 – despite non-compliance with the rules.

The corrective arm of the Stability and Growth Pact: Effective but procyclical

In essence, this debate revolves around the question of whether the so-called corrective arm of the SGP is effective in guiding national fiscal policies. Under the corrective arm, EU member states with planned or actual budget deficits exceeding 3% of GDP in principle end up in an Excessive Deficit Procedure. Countries in an Excessive Deficit Procedure receive binding recommendations from the European Council on the annual fiscal adjustment (usually defined in terms of the structural budget balance) to be undertaken, with the aim of bringing the budget deficit below the 3% threshold.

Remarkably, the effect of the Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations on fiscal behaviour has never been analysed in a direct manner. Some authors use the 3% threshold to define the applicable fiscal governance regime, generally finding that at least forecasted deficits fall faster when this threshold is exceeded (Beetsma and Giuliodori 2009, Cimadomo 2012). However, this does not do justice to the fact that Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations vary in size and timing among countries, depending on economic circumstances, for instance.

In a recent paper (De Jong and Gilbert 2018) we aim to close this gap. To this end, we first construct a real-time database of all country-specific Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations since the introduction of the euro, tracking all revisions and changes in these recommendations. The first Excessive Deficit Procedures were launched in 2003, for France and Germany. Until 2017, 22 Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations were launched for EMU member states, yielding a total of 88 individual country-year targets. As Figure 1 shows, the (GDP-weighted) average requiring fiscal adjustment in the euro area as a whole peaked during the sovereign debt crisis years, reaching almost 1% of GDP in 2012.

Figure 1 Total recommended fiscal adjustment, euro area

In the next step, we estimate real-time fiscal reaction functions for a panel of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) member states over the period 1999-2017. We relate changes in the structural budget balance to the usual determinants of fiscal policy found in the literature, such as the lagged debt level, the output gap, budget balance and planned elections. Additionally, we include the Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations applicable at a specific forecast vintage as an additional explanatory variable to gauge their impact.

This approach comes with a challenge – countries with Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations almost by definition have budget deficits exceeding 3% of GDP, and high deficits may be correlated with factors (other than Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations) inducing a change in fiscal behaviour. We control for such factors in three ways:

  • We allow the effect of recommendations to be different for countries in financial support programs, as they are subject to a different and more stringent governance regime.
  • We control for interest rate spreads, which have been found to correlate with having an Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendation (Diaz Kalan et al. 2018). 
  • To the extent that deficits above 3% might solicit a change in fiscal behaviour for any remaining reasons, we allow the shape of the fiscal reaction function to vary with the level of the deficit.

We estimate the fiscal reaction functions using both real-time and ex-post data taken from the European Commission’s spring and autumn forecasts. This approach allows us to compare planned versus actual fiscal policy. 

We find that Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations significantly affect both planned and actual fiscal policy. An Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendation that is larger by 1% of GDP leads to close to 1% of GDP of forecasted additional fiscal consolidation, and around 0.8% of actual consolidation.1 These findings imply that in particular during 2010-2014, when recommendations were large and frequent, Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations significantly shaped fiscal policy in the euro area.

The preventive arm is weak 

Anticipating the procyclical effects of the corrective arm, the designers of the Stability and Growth Pact also created a preventive arm. This arm of the pact requires countries which are not in the corrective arm to improve their budget balance towards their medium-term objective (a country-specific number close to budget balance), with the aim of creating a safety margin towards the 3% threshold in bad economic times and achieving long-term sustainability of public finances. 

The preventive arm was significantly reformed in 2005, when medium-term objectives were first introduced, and in 2011, when it became (legally) possible to sanction non-compliant member states. It is still quite early to judge the effectiveness of especially the latter of these reforms. However, overall, the track record of the preventive arm in terms of pushing countries towards their medium-term objective is weak. As documented in Hessel et al. (2017), a significant number of euro area countries have never met their medium-term objective. The European Court of Auditors (2018) finds that even during good economic times, progress towards the medium-term objective is often insufficient. Perhaps most remarkably, despite rising debt levels, even the medium-term objectives themselves have mostly become less ambitious over time (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Average medium-term objectives, weighted by GDP

Concluding remarks

The corrective arm of the SGP has both been ridiculed by those highlighting that despite non-compliance sanctions have never been imposed, and vilified by those blaming it for having caused procyclical fiscal tightening. This column suggests there is probably more truth to the latter than the former criticism. While we find indications that forecasted compliance is a bit stronger than actual compliance – in line with the literature on forecast biases in the proximity of the 3% threshold (Frankel and Schreger 2013, Gilbert and De Jong 2017) – Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations significantly affect fiscal policy in the euro area. 

In interpreting these findings, some nuance remains warranted. After all, even absent any Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendation, most governments would – at least to some extent – eventually correct large deficits. As such, the effect of Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendations may partly reflect a forward shift of fiscal adjustment rather than an additional effect. 

As a final remark, note that the procyclical effects of the Excessive Deficit Procedure partly reflect the failings of the preventive arm, which has contributed to a lack of buffer creation in good times. A number of recent proposals effectively aim to make the preventive arm look more like the corrective arm, in terms of clarity and possibility for sanctions, or merge the two altogether (e.g. European Fiscal Board 2018, Bénassy-Quéré et al. 2018). Our findings on the – perhaps surprising – effectiveness of the corrective arm suggest that this could be a fruitful way forward.

Authors’ note: At the time of writing, Jasper De Jong worked for De Nederlandsche Bank. This column represents the views of the authors and should not be attributed to the institutions with which they are affiliated.

References

Beetsma, R and M Giuliodori (2009), “Fiscal adjustment to cyclical developments in the OECD: An empirical analysis based on real-time data”, Oxford Economic Papers 62(3): 419-441.

Bénassy-Quéré, A, M Brunnermeier, H Enderlein, E Farhi, M Fratzscher, C Fuest, P-O Gourinchas, P Martin, J Pisani-Ferry, H Rey, I Schnabel, N Véron, B Weder di Mauro and J Zettelmeyer (2018), “Reconciling risk sharing with market discipline: A constructive approach to euro area reform”, CEPR Policy Insight 91.

Cimadomo, J (2012), “Fiscal policy in real time”, Scandinavian Journal of Economics 114(2): 440-465.

Darvas, Z, P Martin and X Ragot (2018), “The economic case for an expenditure rule in Europe”, VoxEU.org, 12 September.

De Jong, J and N Gilbert (2018), “Fiscal discipline in the EMU? Testing the effectiveness of the Excessive Deficit Procedure”, DNB Working Paper 607.

Diaz Kalan, F, M Popescu and J Reynaud (2018), “Thou shalt not breach: The impact on sovereign spreads of noncomplying with the EU fiscal rules”, IMF working paper 18(87).

European Court of Auditors (2018), “Is the main objective of the preventive arm of the Stability and Growth Pact delivered?”, Special report 18/2018.

European Fiscal Board (2018), Annual report 2018

Frankel, J and J Schreger (2013), “Over-optimistic official forecasts and fiscal rules in the eurozone”, Review of World Economics (Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv) 149(2): 247-272. 

Gilbert, N  and J De Jong (2017), “Do European fiscal rules induce a bias in fiscal forecasts? Evidence om the Stability and Growth Pact”, Public Choice 170(1-2): 1-32.

Gros, D (2016), “The second death of the Stability Pact and the birth of an inter-governmental Europe”, Centre for European Policy Studies commentary, 28 July 2016.

Hessel, J, N Gilbert and J de Jong (2017), “Capitalising on the euro”, DNB Occasional Studies 15-2.

Schaüble, W (2012), “Economic and institutional perspectives”, speech, Florence, 17 May 2012.

Endnotes

[1] For countries subject to a financial support program, the picture is a bit different. We find that, while they implemented substantial consolidation measures, the exact amount was relatively disconnected from the adjustment demanded in the Excessive Deficit Procedure recommendation.

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Topics:  EU institutions EU policies Global crisis

Tags:  Stability and Growth Pact, Excessive Deficit Procedure, EU, fiscal adjustment

Senior Economist, Dutch Ministry of Finance

Senior Economist, De Nederlandsche Bank

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