Non-Discretionary and Automatic Fiscal Policy in the EU and the OECD

Melitz, Jacques (2005) Non-Discretionary and Automatic Fiscal Policy in the EU and the OECD. Discussion paper. University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

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    Official adjustments of the budget balance to the cycle merely assume that the only category of government spending that responds automatically to the cycle is unemployment compensation. But estimates show otherwise. Payments for pensions, health, subsistence, invalidity, child care and subsidies of all sorts to firms respond automatically and significantly to the cycle as well. In addition, it is fairly common to borrow official figures for cyclically adjusted budget balances, divide by potential output, and then use the resulting ratios to study discretionary fiscal policy. But if potential output is not deterministic but subject to supply shocks, then apart from anything else, those ratios are inefficient estimates of the cyclically-independent ratios of budget balances divided by potential output. (A fortiori, they are inefficient estimates of the cyclically adjusted ratios of budget balances to observed output.) Accordingly, the paper provides separate estimates of the impact of the cycle on the levels of budget balances and the ratios of budget balances to output. In addition, it discusses the relation between the two sorts of estimates. When the focus is on ratios of budget balances to output, the cyclical adjustments depend more on inertia in government spending on goods and services than they do on taxes (which are largely proportional to output). But they depend even still more on transfer payments. Besides calling for different series for discretionary fiscal policy if ratios serve, these results also raise questions about the general policy advice to 'let the automatic stabilizers work.'