Weakening growth and policy uncertainties cast a shadow over the fiscal outlook, even as budget deficits narrow and recent announcements by monetary authorities provide some respite on the financial front. Countries with stronger fiscal positions and lower public debt, including several emerging market economies, can afford to pause fiscal consolidation efforts, but in others adjustment must proceed at a pace that reflects medium-term adjustment needs, the state of the economy, and financing constraints. Where financing permits, flexibility should be allowed for automatic stabilizers to play in response to moderate growth shortfalls. Should growth fall well short of current expectations, countries with space should smooth their adjustment paths over 2013 and beyond. The United States and Japan must promptly define and enact clear and credible plans to return to fiscal sustainability over the medium term and buttress investor confidence.
Consolidation efforts are yielding fruit, at least for deficits. In 2013, cyclically adjusted deficits are expected to fall below their precrisis levels in about half of the countries included in the Fiscal Monitor database.2 The evolution of debt ratios is more varied: they have declined in most emerging market economies, but not in most of the advanced economies, reflecting in many cases higher interest rate–growth differentials in the latter group. Consolidation packages have typically attempted to focus on measures that are supportive of potential growth, but countries with large adjustment requirements have had to use a broader brush, in many cases cutting public investment and raising income taxes. Institutional reforms have also been introduced to strengthen governance and credibility, including—but not only—in the euro area.
Notwithstanding the progress mentioned in the preceding section, large financing requirements remain a source of near-term fiscal vulnerability in several advanced economies, while prospective increases in age-related spending loom large over the long-term horizon for many of them. Moreover, fiscal risks around the baseline projections are on the rise across country groups, given the uncertain growth outlook and large contingent liabilities, particularly from the financial sector.19 If history is a lesson, the path to restoring fiscal sustainability will be long and arduous for most advanced economies. Maintaining adjustment efforts over the long term will require packages that mesh flexibility and credibility (through the use of structural or cyclically adjusted targets), limit adverse social effects, and boost employment and labor supply through appropriate tax and other spending policies, backed by strong fiscal institutions.