II The Context for the Implementation of Fiscal Policy
  • 1 https://isni.org/isni/0000000404811396, International Monetary Fund
  • | 2 https://isni.org/isni/0000000404811396, International Monetary Fund

Abstract

The chief characteristics of a centrally planned economy began to emerge in the Soviet Union toward the end of the 1920s and early 1930s and eventually consisted of state ownership of the means of production; detailed quantitative central plans for enterprise inputs and outputs and for foreign trade and financial plans that reflected the physical flows of the plans; bureaucratic bargaining over access to resources in the context of the plan’s targets; fixed prices, mainly to ease the planning process; and the fulfillment of the plan as the main criteria of enterprise efficiency. Other features included a “monobank” banking system and the separation of the money stocks of enterprises and households.1 Two aspects of the centrally planned economy had a bearing on the nature of the fiscal system: the emergence of a level and structure of prices completely out of line with world levels and relativities and an exceptionally complex mechanism for the creation and redistribution of profits within the economy.

The chief characteristics of a centrally planned economy began to emerge in the Soviet Union toward the end of the 1920s and early 1930s and eventually consisted of state ownership of the means of production; detailed quantitative central plans for enterprise inputs and outputs and for foreign trade and financial plans that reflected the physical flows of the plans; bureaucratic bargaining over access to resources in the context of the plan’s targets; fixed prices, mainly to ease the planning process; and the fulfillment of the plan as the main criteria of enterprise efficiency. Other features included a “monobank” banking system and the separation of the money stocks of enterprises and households.1 Two aspects of the centrally planned economy had a bearing on the nature of the fiscal system: the emergence of a level and structure of prices completely out of line with world levels and relativities and an exceptionally complex mechanism for the creation and redistribution of profits within the economy.

Background

Against this background the government’s approach to the enterprise sector depended on a number of factors, including perceptions of the particular enterprise’s profit potential. That different enterprises had different “surplus” potential called for the creation of a system of enterprise-specific financial planning with a view to ensuring a “desirable” redistribution of resources as well as the generation of an adequate level of state budget revenues.2 In many respects, the fact that the number of independent production units was relatively small and the enterprises correspondingly large facilitated the functioning of this system, and campaigns were often launched to make enterprises even larger. Various types of producer associations were established to encourage the concentration of management and reduce the number of installations that needed to be run by the government. Financial and efficiency objectives were seldom, if ever, central to these attempts at concentration, which seemed more driven by a desire to keep the planning process manageable. Loss-making enterprises (to the extent that the notion of “loss” in such a system was well defined) were not, as a rule, closed down but the losses were instead absorbed by the state budget, through credits and subsidies extended by ministries.

The Gosplan (the State Planning Committee of the U.S.S.R.) was the center of the command economy, with responsibility for the formulation of a set of interrelated plans. These plans were prepared on a balance sheet format and were simply called “balances” and consisted essentially of comprehensive attempts at identifying sources and uses of resources. For instance, the “production and allocation balance” would identify in terms of physical units of output all sources of production and consumption in the economy. Similar balances were elaborated for investment, foreign trade, household incomes and expenditure, and the banking system. Because virtually the entire economy was state owned, there was, in principle, little distinction between financing of the budget and financing of all the economy. The state’s general financial balance attempted to integrate the information contained in all sectoral balances in a way that would permit a decision to be made concerning what share of total financing would be carried out through the budget itself, and what shares through the sectoral ministries and the enterprises themselves. The general financial balance was the principal instrument of financial planning in the Soviet Union during the postwar period and formed the basis for the budgetary process.

The planning process was two-pronged. Enterprises drafted their plans, which were then revised by the industrial ministries, which in turn received “control figures” as plan targets from Gosplan. In its calculations, Gosplan specified primary targets in terms of the physical volume of production, and it manipulated prices, subsidies, wages, investment, and credit to redistribute resources among enterprises. Fiscal policy was passive, playing a subordinate role to other objectives (for example, output and the level of social spending), with the state budget being essentially the mechanism to effect such redistribution.

Government control over the activity of enterprises was mainly exercised through sectoral ministries that were fully responsible for the situation in their respective branches. Al l sectoral ministries received directives from the Gosplan and the Ministry of Finance concerning the amount of resources that their respective branches were compelled to channel to the budget. The ministries endorsed the financial plans of the enterprises subordinated to them and adopted decisions on spending by each of the enterprises. The sectoral ministries were instructed to find ways of redistributing financial resources of the enterprises under their jurisdiction in a manner that would ensure the normal development of production, the financing of expenditures for the maintenance of the social infrastructure that were listed on the balance sheet of enterprises (mainly social benefits and services), and their contribution to the state budget of those amounts requested by the Ministry of Finance and the Gosplan. The ministries were also responsible for accumulating financial resources needed for the implementation of major investment and research programs in the branch.

The guidelines for channeling profits and depreciation allowances to the sectoral ministry fund or to the state budget varied from enterprise to enterprise and from year to year, fluctuating between zero and 100 percent. Each enterprise’s five-year plan was formally approved within the framework of the country’s overall five-year plan,3 but these intermediate financial plans were, as a rule, preliminary and were subject to respecification before the beginning of every calendar year. In fact, most financial plan indicators were revised throughout the year, sometimes up to the very end. The ministries also had to ensure the repayment of the losses made by the loss-making enterprises in the branch, if such losses could not be attributed to faulty decision making at a higher level of the management chain. In order to fulfill these and many other functions, the sectoral ministries were granted all the necessary legal rights to manage the financial resources of the enterprises subordinated to them.

The financial resources of enterprises available for redistribution included not only profits arising from production but also depreciation allowances intended for the renovation of fixed assets and for maintenance of the capital stock. The rate of depreciation allowance was set by the Gosplan and revised about once every ten years concurrently with a reassessment of the value of fixed assets, as was the case in 1973, 1982, and 1991. It is necessary to emphasize that, in principle, the entire volume of financial resources of the enterprises was subject to centralized management regardless of whether these resources were channeled to the budget or remained on the accounts of the enterprises; ad hoc direct intervention in the finances of individual enterprises to “correct” anomalies was quite common. Often the working capital of the enterprises was also partially redistributed within the branch.

Setting the Stage for Reform

In elaborating the financial plans for a given enterprise, the ministry assumed fixed prices for all inputs and output, although it was admitted that certain enterprises might be unable to contribute to the budget or, worse, might need financial support from the state. In such a case, the ministry was responsible for determining the volume of subsidies to be received by the enterprise and to agree for this support with higher authorities. As part of the plan, no account was taken of the potential information content of prices, and price stability (that is, fixity) was sought as much for the desirability of a stable purchasing power for the population as to facilitate the planning process itself. That fixed prices led to shortages or to growing “black” markets where prices were often several times higher than official levels was seen as a temporary maladjustment that needed to be understood (and dealt with, often) against the complexities of managing a plan that attempted to balance production, stock building, and the utilization of thousands of inputs to fulfill the primary objectives of the plan. Within this structure, price formation was difficult, with the preferred approach being the setting of wholesale prices at average cost plus a percentage markup. While this prevented “excessive” profits, it did not especially encourage cost savings, and, in time, the Soviet Union became one of the most inefficient and wasteful users of resources (such as electricity, energy, and labor), using more inputs per unit of output than in other industrial countries.

The interrelated system of fixed prices, intrasectoral and intersectoral reallocation of financial resources, and subsidization became the cornerstone of the Soviet economy and the basis of the budget. In time, although its rigidity came to be increasingly recognized, attempts at reform were made difficult by the realization that it would be very difficult to “improve” one element within the system while leaving the rest unchanged. For instance, in 1987 a Law on State Enterprises was adopted with the intention of promoting decentralization and giving enterprises greater managerial independence and autonomy concerning investment decisions, wage policy, utilization of profits, and so on. The main consequence of the policy, however, appears to have been the rapid growth of wages, the concomitant shortages, and a fairly extensive process of state asset expropriations by the increasingly autonomous managers, without any measurable improvements in efficiency, quality, or even physical output. Other measures adopted at various times aimed at “tightening labor discipline,” reducing the energy intensity of production, and better directing investment to foster retooling and modernization of the industrial sector and improving the quality of output were of limited success, given the system’s overriding need to fulfill production targets within a reasonably consistent matrix of inputs and outputs. While this period also witnessed some of the first manifestations of “glasnost,” perceptions of continued drops in living standards also led to widespread public frustration and disappointment.

In parallel to what could otherwise be described as half-hearted, piecemeal (and at times inconsistent) attempts at reform, the macroeconomic climate in the Soviet Union worsened in the second half of the 1980s and in 1990–91. Fiscal pressures emerged on a number of fronts. On the revenue side, under the greater autonomy conferred to enterprises by the 1987 Law on State Enterprises, profit transfers remitted to the budget fell. Declining oil production and world market prices for energy (especially intense in 1986) also had a negative effect on budgetary revenues. Although prompted by legitimate public health concerns, the antialcohol campaign launched in 1985 sharply reduced turnover tax receipts.4 On the expenditure side, the government raised procurement prices on agricultural products a number of times without concomitant increases in retail prices, leading to automatic upward adjustments in budgetary subsidies. Cleanup costs in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and social and humanitarian assistance following the earthquake in Armenia in 1988, together with periodic increases in pensions and other components of social expenditure, all contributed to a significant widening of the fiscal deficit. In addition, a tug-of-war began in 1990 between the Russian Federation government and the Union government (U.S.S.R.) to establish jurisdiction and fiscal control over the enterprise sector. The chief weapons in this process were the promise of lower tax rates for enterprises that switched allegiance, more generous subsidies, and, by 1991, Central Bank of Russia credits on highly favorable terms. By the spring of 1991, the bulk of Union enterprises located on Russian Federation territory had been reclassified as “Russian.”

At the end of 1991, the fiscal deficit had set new records (close to 30 percent of GDP), the bulk of it financed by monetary emission, leading to a sharp rise in the ratio of M2 to GDP, to well over 70 percent.5 At the same time, the rapid growth of real wages had led to strong demand pressures that, in the context of fixed prices, intensified shortages and the proverbial long lines. The fall in export revenues associated with lower oil production, the collapse of trading arrangements among member countries of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), the rapid expansion of external debt during the second half of the 1980s, and the utilization of virtually the entire stock of foreign exchange reserves precipitated a balance of payments crisis characterized by growing external payments arrears, a drying up of loan disbursements, and a sharp contraction of imports and output.6 A point worth making is that a (perhaps unintended) consequence of the battle for control of the enterprise sector was the creation of an environment in which the discretionary granting of tax concessions came to be perceived as a legitimate means to achieve other ends (for example, in 1991, political support) and enterprises were made to see clearly the benefits of lobbying the government for various forms of financial support. Akin to a soft budget constraint, the early establishment of such patterns of behavior may have had a direct bearing on Russia’s subsequent attempts at financial stabilization (see Section III).

Price liberalization in early 1992 effectively permanently disabled the command structure at the basis of the planned economy and made it possible, at least in theory, to move quickly to a decentralized system of prices that would reflect relative scarcities in the marketplace. However, the initial assumption that free prices and the concomitant elimination of subsidies, together with large cuts in public investment and defense and increased revenues associated with the introduction of a value-added tax (VAT), would rapidly lead to budget balance in the course of 1992 proved unduly optimistic. Key prices in the economy were not liberalized fully (for example, energy),7 thereby depriving the budget of an important source of revenue. The authorities and other observers of the Russian economy underestimated the magnitude of subsidization as well as the extent to which such subsidization, inefficient as it was, had come to acquire social protection elements. Perhaps more important, the authorities’ stabilization objectives were undermined by the lack of broad-based support for the reform strategy, particularly at the enterprise level. By the spring of 1992, important concessions began to be made to enterprise managers and regions (for example, Northern Territories), mainly in the form of subsidized credits to agriculture and industry as well as by a general slowdown in the pace of structural reform in other areas. Contrary to initial expectations, far from achieving budget balance, the consolidated budget deficit in 1992, including many quasi-fiscal operations of the central bank incorporated into the budget during 1993–95, was probably well in excess of 50 percent of GDP,8 the monthly rate of inflation soared to close to 30 percent in the last quarter of 1992, making the subsequent task of financial stabilization considerably harder than had been anticipated at the outset of the reforms.

1

For a comprehensive overview, see Wolf (1985).

2

The very notion of a “state budget” was to a large extent arbitrary as it did not incorporate various articles of spending under the control of the state; since there was no other term, this term was used, inaccurately and misleadingly, to mean aggregate spending by the state.

3

The financial plan not only endorsed the allocation of the financial resources of the enterprises but provided for a more complex process of coordinating prices, subsidies, and centralized investment distributed among the enterprises in the sector and among different sectors.

4

Tax revenue from alcohol products amounted to some 20 percent of total tax revenue.

6

For a detailed discussion of growing Soviet economic problems in the late 1980s, see the three-volume A Study of the Soviet Economy, 1991, jointly published by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. The main elements of this external crisis are also presented in Christensen (1994).

7

Because of the existence of export quotas on crude oil, effective price liberalization for oil did not take place until 1995.

8

On some of the problems associated with measures of the fiscal deficit during this period, see Section IV.

Cited By

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