Strengthening Chile's Rule-Based Fiscal Framework
Author: Teresa Dabán

Contributor Notes

Author’s E-Mail Address: tdaban@imf.org

The cornerstone of Chile’s impressive fiscal performance has been its structural balance rule. By insulating public spending from short-term copper price fluctuations and the business cycle, the rule has helped preserve fiscal discipline. However, the implementation of the rule in recent years has revealed certain challenges, and in May 2010, the government established a high-level commission to recommend reforms that could make the rule even more effective. This paper assesses the scope for improving the design and implementation of the structural balance rule in light of best practices and OECD country experience with fiscal rules. This assessment suggests several options to strengthen Chile’s fiscal rule, including by simplifying the calculation of the structural balance; enhancing the rule’s flexibility, transparency and accountability; and complementing it with a medium-term fiscal framework.

Abstract

The cornerstone of Chile’s impressive fiscal performance has been its structural balance rule. By insulating public spending from short-term copper price fluctuations and the business cycle, the rule has helped preserve fiscal discipline. However, the implementation of the rule in recent years has revealed certain challenges, and in May 2010, the government established a high-level commission to recommend reforms that could make the rule even more effective. This paper assesses the scope for improving the design and implementation of the structural balance rule in light of best practices and OECD country experience with fiscal rules. This assessment suggests several options to strengthen Chile’s fiscal rule, including by simplifying the calculation of the structural balance; enhancing the rule’s flexibility, transparency and accountability; and complementing it with a medium-term fiscal framework.

I. Introduction

The cornerstone of Chile’s impressive fiscal performance has been its structural balance rule. By insulating public spending from short-term copper price fluctuations and the business cycle, the rule has helped preserve fiscal discipline. However, the implementation of the rule in recent years has revealed certain challenges, and in May 2010, the government established a high-level commission to recommend reforms that could make the rule even more effective. This paper assesses the scope for improving the design and implementation of the structural balance rule in light of best practices and OECD country experience with fiscal rules. This assessment suggests several possible options to strengthen Chile’s fiscal rule, including by simplifying the calculation of the structural balance; enhancing the rule’s flexibility, transparency and accountability; and complementing it with a medium-term fiscal framework.

The structure of the paper is as follows. Section II provides an overview of how the structural balance rule has helped Chile to address its main fiscal challenges and risks. Section III assesses Chile’s structural balance rule, from three complementary angles, including the rule’s de jure design, the rule’s de facto operational implementation, and a comparison with OECD practices. Section IV outlines options to strengthen Chile’s structural balance rule. Section E concludes.

II. Background: Chile’s Main Fiscal Challenges and Risks

Chile’s economy remains highly vulnerable to external shocks, but especially to volatility in copper prices. Shocks include sharp exchange rate changes, natural disasters, as well as terms of trade fluctuations, among others. But one of Chile’s most important fiscal challenges, by far, is managing the volatility of copper tax revenues, especially given the large and increasing amount of revenues that the government derives from the copper sector (see Appendix I). While during 2000–04 copper revenues accounted for only 5 percent of total revenues (around 1 percent of GDP), in the last five years copper revenues have increased significantly and accounted for 24 percent of total government revenues (or almost 6 percent of GDP). If fully spent in real time, copper revenues would have put pressure on absorptive capacity and triggered pressures for a sizable real appreciation of the currency.

To address these challenges, since 2001, the authorities have put in place the structural balance rule. The rule built on the copper stabilization fund adopted in the late 1980s, which allowed government spending to evolve in line with sustainable copper revenues, valued at the long-term copper price. In 2001, the government added an adjustment for the business cycle and defined the structural balance as the central government balance evaluated at potential output and the long-term copper price. In 2002, committees of experts were designated to provide independent, technical estimates of potential output and the long-term copper price. The government then set a target for the structural balance in line with a goal for accumulation of net financial assets. The rule allowed the central government to fend off spending pressures and run large surpluses as copper prices surged. At the end of 2008, the central government’s financial assets equaled 20 percent of GDP, while financial liabilities accounted for only 6 percent of GDP, with a total net financial position equivalent to 26 percent of GDP (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Central Government’s Assets and Liabilities

(In percent GDP)

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2011, 017; 10.5089/9781455211982.001.A001

Source: DIPRES

The structural balance rule was also aimed at providing long-term savings to cover Chile’s contingent liabilities, which at present still remain sizeable.2 The main contingent liabilities include the (i) the recognition bonds introduced in the 1980s after the privatization of the pension system; (ii) the minimum pension guarantee introduced in 2008; (iii) government guarantees of borrowing by state-owned enterprises; (iv) minimum revenue and exchange rate guarantees under public-private partnership arrangements; (v) banking deposit guarantees; (vi) judicial lawsuits; and (vii) a miscellaneous of programs that provide guarantees to loans and mortgages issued by commercial banks to students, small business, and other collectives. The estimated costs of these contingent liabilities, when adjusted by expected associated risks, amounted to 13 percent of GDP in 2009. However, this estimation could be higher if the liabilities associated to the negative capital of the central bank and commitments under the fuel price stabilization funds are included. The contingent liabilities’ expected costs would also increase if estimations are conducted at the maximum risk level and the contingent liabilities related to the minimum pension guarantee are computed by using the net present value of the expected future flows (see Table 1).

Table 1:

Chile: Contingent Liabilities in 2009

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Includes sevaral programs to support housing, employment creation, small and medium enterprises, student loans, and judicial lawsuits.

This columns corresponds to the authorities’ methodology as published in DIPRES (2009)

Source: DIPRES and IMF staff estimations

III. An Assessment of Chile’s Fiscal Rule

This paper assesses Chile’s structural balance rule from three different but complementary angles: (i) from the optic of best practices on the design of fiscal rules; (ii) the practical implementation of the rule; and (iii) vis-à-vis the most common practices and approaches used by OECD countries.

Best practices on the design of fiscal rules

According to best practices, rule-based fiscal frameworks are characterized by a set of distinct features. A fiscal rule is defined as “a mechanism placing some durable constraints on fiscal discretion through numerical limits on budgetary aggregates (expenditure, revenue, budget balance and/or public debt)” (see Kumar and Ter-Minassian (2007)). However, there is no one-size-fits-all fiscal policy rule that is always and everywhere ideal. The design of a fiscal rule depends on the constellation of shocks prevalent in an economy, the nature and magnitude of the fiscal policy bias under discretion, and the main fiscal challenges ahead.

The abundant literature on fiscal rules identifies a core set of critical components of a well-designed fiscal rule (IMF, 2009 and Kopits and Symansky, 1998). These include:

  1. Clear, and as simple as possible, set of operating fiscal variables, including a numerical target or ceiling (or a combination thereof) defined in terms of a specific fiscal indicator (or a combination thereof); a clear definition of the fiscal objectives or challenges the rule aims at addressing, which should be consistent with other macroeconomic policies; and an unambiguous and stable link between the numerical targets or ceilings and the ultimate fiscal objectives.

  2. Sufficient flexibility to respond to shocks, which are beyond the authorities’ control, so that the rule should not exacerbate the adverse macroeconomic impact of shocks (permanent or transitory). The rule should provide ex-ante sufficient room for a stabilizing fiscal response and a gradual adjustment to the fiscal targets, while avoiding procyclicality and preserving credibility. The flexibility provisions would include, “exceptional circumstances clauses” that allow for temporary deviations in the face of major shocks; well-defined mechanisms to deal with ex-post deviations; and provisions to undertake periodic and rolling adjustments of the numerical targets.

  3. Clear and well-designed institutional arrangements, which should include a clear statutory basis; effective management and monitoring mechanisms, to prevent and assess deviations from the numerical targets or ceilings; transparency and accountability provisions, to make it explicit the cost incurred by policymakers if they deviate from the rule; and enforcement procedures, to ensure policymakers incur costs when deviations occur.

How does the “de jure” design of Chile’s structural balance rule compare with best practices?

Chile’s fiscal rule is supported by a solid and highly hierarchical institutional arrangement. Since 2006, the implementation of Chile’s structural balance rule is supported by legislation, the Fiscal Responsibility Law (FRL).3 This gave a more solid legal foundation for the rule adopted in 2001, which had been based on a high-profile political commitment.4 The FRL mandates that the President must adopt, within the 90 days of taking office, “a decree defining the fiscal fundamentals of his/her administration and the expected impact on the structural balance.” This reflects Chile’s institutional arrangement, according to which, compared with other Latin American and OECD countries, most fiscal powers are vested in the President and the executive branch (IMF, 2003, 2005). According to the constitution, the President alone may take fiscal initiatives, which congress can only approves or rejects. The constitution prohibits congress from increasing or lowering the revenue estimates in the draft budget; it may only reduce draft expenditures—as long these are not allocated by a permanent law. If congress does not approve the annual budget law within 60 days after submission by the President, the draft budget automatically comes into force.5 Under this hierarchical system, fiscal discipline depends excessively on the commitment of a relatively small group of actors (see Blondal and Curristine (2004) and Marcel, et al. (2001)).

The FRL defines clearly the nature and coverage of the structural balance, The target of Chile’s fiscal rule, i.e., the structural balance, is defined as “the balance that the central government would have achieved if the economy was operating at potential, i.e. excluding the effect that the cyclical fluctuations in economic activity, the copper price, and other factors of similar nature, may have on the government revenues and expenditures” (Article 16 FRL, 2). The definition of the structural balance excludes the central bank and public enterprises but includes the central government’s interest payment and interest receipts. Therefore, the structural balance is the measure of the central government’s discretionary fiscal policy.

The FRL provides no guidance on the practical implementation of the rule. The FRL indicates in its Article 16 that “the Budget Directorate (also known as DIPRES in Spanish) would compute the structural balance according to the methodology, procedures, and other applicable norms that would be established by a Supreme Decree of the Ministry of Finance”. However, this Supreme Decree on the methodology of the structural balance has not been enacted yet.

The FRL does not define the objectives of the rule. Instead, the FRL focuses on the use of fiscal surpluses, if generated by the implementation of the rule. Moreover, it authorizes the Ministry of Finance to allocate 0.5 percent of GDP per year, during 2006–11, for the recapitalization of the central bank provided the central government runs an overall surplus. It also creates two sovereign funds: (i) the Pension Reserve Fund (PRF), aimed at covering future (after 2016) commitments on minimum pensions; the PRF is funded with a minimum annual contribution of 0.2 percent of GDP (to be made even in the case of overall deficit), which can be increased to 0.5 percent of GDP; and (ii) the Economic and Social Stabilization Fund (ESSF), which replaced the Copper Stabilization Fund, and was designed to compensate for drops in revenue in periods of slower growth and/or lower copper prices, and to finance any future deficits as an alternative to borrowing. The ESSF’s resources will come from any central government overall surpluses (after the contributions to the PRF and the transfers for the recapitalization of the central bank have been done). Resources from the ESSF can be used to fund the contributions to the PRF when the overall central government balance is negative.

The FRL does not include an explicit provision to respond to major shocks nor envisage any provision to handle temporary ex-post small deviations. In principle, Chile’s rule is very flexible because it allows the government to modify the structural balance target at any time. Indeed, the target has been changed on two occasions, in 2008 and in 2009, when circumstances required a change. However, the FRL does not specify the circumstances under which the structural balance target could be changed, the procedures that need to be followed to introduce these changes or the process to return the fiscal accounts to normal. In fact, once a target value for the structural balance is specified, the rule becomes extremely rigid, with no ex-ante and transparent “escape clauses.” Moreover, the FRL does not specify whether the compliance of the rule should apply to ex-ante estimates or ex-post outcomes or envisage any mechanism to correct small ex-post deviations. These small deviations may take place because of forecast errors in the estimation of structural revenues, which usually are very sensitive to most recent data and revisions to historical data.

The FRL includes important provisions on the monitoring and transparency of the rule, but leaves out any formal verification process. The most salient aspects of the FRL are (i) requiring the Budget Directorate to compute the structural balance each year; (ii) allowing the government to rely on independent experts for non-binding judgments on the long-term copper price and the key inputs for potential output;6 and, (iii) requiring the Budget Directorate to issue an annual report on the government’s contingent liabilities. However, the FRL does not provide for the monitoring and reporting of the actual structural balance or for independent third party verification of the compliance with the rule.

Implementation of Chile’s structural balance

In practice, the nature, rationale and even the methodology of the structural balance rule are usually laid out in policy papers of the Budget Directorate. A 2001 policy paper of the Budget Directorate (see Marcel et al. (2001)) outlined for the first time Chile’s structural balance rule. The paper noted that the structural surplus targeted with the rule (1 percent of total GDP at the time) was to be used to recapitalize the central bank, pre-finance contingent liabilities, and create a buffer of net financial assets to allow the central government to absorb external shocks. The paper also noted that the rule was designed “to allow the automatic stabilizers in the budget to work uninhibited, while reducing the procyclicality of the fiscal policy, avoiding fine-tuning of fiscal policy to the phases of the cycle, and isolating the economy from transitory shocks.” However, the rule, as defined in the policy paper, does not include an explicit debt ceiling or a floor for the government’s net financial position that could help provide a medium-term anchor.

The initial methodology devised by the Budget Directorate to compute the structural balance was relatively easy to understand. The initial methodology devised in Marcel et al. (2001) consisted in (i) estimating ex-ante the expected structural revenues E(SRt), i.e., the revenues that the government would have achieved if the economy was operating at potential and the copper price was at its long-term level; (ii) subtracting from the expected structural revenues the structural balance (SBt, e.g., a 1 percent of GDP surplus as originally envisaged in 2001); and (iii) calculating the expenditures (Et) as a residual, according to the following formulae:

Et=E(SRt)SBtE(SRt)=E(Rt)E(At)=E(Rt)*(Yp/Y)ε

where E(SRt) will equal the expected government revenues (E(Rt)) minus the expected adjustments for the long-term copper price and the output gap, E(At). Yp is the potential output (that is the maximum output compatible, at any given time, with the absence of unexpected inflation), Y is the actual output and ε is the elasticity of revenues with respect to the output gap. This methodology, as explained in Marcel, et al. (2001), was predicated on (i) the absence in Chile of public spending programs with a cyclical component; and (ii) the need to preserve the simplicity of the rule by focusing on the essential cyclical adjustments.

The expected fiscal outcomes are very sensitive to the estimates of structural revenues, which are unobservable. Under the rule, any overestimation of the structural revenues will translate into higher expenditures and a more expansionary fiscal stance. For instance, any overestimation of the long-term copper price by the panel of experts would translate into an increase in expenditures. This implies that the expenditure level, and the fiscal policy stance devised under the rule, becomes endogenous to changes in key parameters, such as the long-term copper prices and other exogenous factors not related to the copper price and the cycle (such as the exchange rate, copper production, and inflation).

During 2001–04 the computation of the structural balance was relative easy to replicate. Initially copper prices were very stable, and the returns from the sovereign funds were small.7 In addition, given the large investment levels in the 1990s, private mining companies’ reported large amortizations and low levels of profits and income tax (see Figure 2). Therefore, during these years, (see Velasco et al. (2010)), the copper price adjustment entailed mainly computing the physical sales of the national copper company (CODELCO) at the long-term copper price. The rest of revenues, including the taxes paid by private mining companies, were adjusted according to the output gap of the total GDP, in an aggregate way and following the IMF guidelines on the calculation of structural balance.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Chile: Copper Price Evolution and Composition of Mining Revenues

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2011, 017; 10.5089/9781455211982.001.A001

Sources: DIPRES and staff calculations.

After 2005, the computation of the structural balance became quite challenging, as the structure of the economy evolved. The main challenges derived from non-linear impact of soaring copper prices in mining tax collections, the introduction of new specific mining taxes, the coming into stream of the production of other minerals (e.g., molybdenum), and the increase in the return of the sovereign funds (which reached almost 4 percent of total revenues in 2008, reflecting an increase in the funds’ balances and higher world interest rates). To avoid that these developments could translate into an increase in structural revenues, and therefore, into an increase in expenditure, the Budget Directorate included additional adjustments to the rule (see Table 2). These adjustments have rendered the methodology for the calculation of the structural balance difficult to replicate, and has opened the door for the introduction of discretionary adjustments.8

Table 2.

Chile: Modifications to the Methodology of Calculation of the Structural Balance, 2005–10

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Sources: Velasco et al. (2010) and Rodriguez, Tokman, and Vega (2007).

The authorities’ willingness and ability to revise the methodology in an open way has been a facet of strength. The Budget Directorate has published ample and detailed information on the methodology for the computation of the structural balance, and all of its modifications. The Budget Directorate also publishes abundant information on the calculation, ex-ante and ex-post, of the structural balance. Publications include the actual values and projections of the overall balance along with the estimated cyclical components from which it is possible to derive the structural balance (see Table 3). The published information also readily allows for the calculation of other standard fiscal indicators, such as the primary balance.

Table 3.

Chile’s Fiscal Balances

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Sources: Authorities and staff projections.
Table 4.

Assessment of Chile’s Structural Balance Rule

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The assessment of Chile’s fiscal policy focused almost exclusively on the structural balance, which at times has imparted an unintended procyclicality to government expenditures. The structural balance is not necessarily a good indicator of the impact of fiscal policy on domestic demand. A more informative indicator of the fiscal policy stance is the structural non-mining balance, defined as the structural non-mining revenues minus total expenditures (see Medas and Zakharova, 2009). An increase in the non-mining deficit would indicate an expansionary fiscal policy affected either through higher expenditure or a relaxation of non-mining revenue collections. By looking at the non-mining structural balance during 2000–08, a slightly different, yet complementary, assessment of Chile’s fiscal performance emerges. During these years, the government’s structural balance of 1 percent of GDP was equivalent to non-mining structural deficits that hovered around 0.8 and 1.8 percent of the non-mining GDP, implying that in certain years the structural balance rule could have imparted a sizeable fiscal impulse to the economy. In particular, during the boom years (2007–08), the non-mining structural deficit and the real rate of growth of expenditures increased significantly, even though the output gap was positive (see Figure 3). The increase in expenditures in 2008 partly reflected the discretionary reduction in the structural surplus target, for 1 percent of GDP to 0.5 percent of GDP, but also the upward revision in the expert-determined long-term price of copper and the increase in the return of the sovereign funds (which was part of structural revenues until 2009).

Figure 3:
Figure 3:

Chile’s Key Fiscal Indicators

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2011, 017; 10.5089/9781455211982.001.A001

Sources: DIPRES and staff calculations.

The procyclicality of the rule may also have been driven by the absence of well-defined provisions to handle ex-post deviations. The actual structural balance reported ex-post by the Budget Directorate (see Table 3) seems to indicate the implementation of end-of-the year adjustments to ensure the ex-post compliance with the rule. The fact that the Chilean government has in fact tried to comply ex-post with the target appear to have enhance the rule’s credibility, but at the price of leading, at times, to procyclical fiscal tightening or loosening.

Chile’s definition of the structural balance has no clear and straightforward link with any fiscal long-term objective. The fiscal indicator that is relevant to maintain the government’s net financial position at a positive and sustainable level is the overall balance and not the structural balance as defined under the Chile’s rule. So far, by targeting a structural surplus, Chile’s government has managed to post large overall balances, especially during 2004–08, and has improved substantially its net financial position. However, targeting a structural surplus or balance is not a guarantee of achieving an overall surplus or balance. This could be illustrated with an extreme case of a sharp and large fall in the copper price. If the actual copper price falls suddenly below the long-term copper price, the government could post an overall deficit, while at the same time posting a structural surplus. Under this scenario, the fiscal policy will reduce the government’s net financial position, while at the same time not violating the structural surplus target.9

In spite of the absence of specific escape clauses, in practice the government has made judicious changes to the structural balance target and clearly explained the rationale for them. Since its inception, the numerical targets for Chile’s structural balance rule have been changed two times. In 2008 the government reduced the structural balance from the initial target of 1 percent of GDP established in 2001 to 0.5 percent of GDP, and further to zero percent of GDP in 2009. In spite of not being required by the FRL, these changes have been usually accompanied by detailed evidence that the changes (in both cases, a reduction in the structural surplus) would not jeopardize fiscal sustainability. For instance, in 2007 the Budget Directorate issued a policy paper (see Engel, Marcel, and Meller (2007)) that notes that the reduction in the structural surplus undertaken in 2008 was justified as the government reached its objective for net financial assets. The reduction in 2009 was justified to allow for a countercyclical fiscal response to the global financial crisis. In 2010 the rule has been temporarily suspended after the earthquake in last February. In fact during 2009 and 2010, the rule de facto has been implemented in a different way, with expenditures determined by the government’s immediate needs (and therefore not calculated as a residual as in previous years), and with the structural balance computed as the residual.

Despite its relative complexity, the structural balance rule, gives the public and markets important confidence-enhancing information about future macro-fiscal responses into the medium-term. The rule is very well known to the public and has helped signal the future behavior of the government (e.g., everybody expects that the central government will not increase expenditure in line with copper prices or GDP growth, see IMF 2003, 2005). The rule’s credibility is strong also because of the government’s decision to rely on two independent panels of experts to determine critical inputs for the estimation of the structural balance: the long-term copper price and the rates of growth of the labor force, capital accumulation, and total factor productivity. Statements identifying the members and documenting the panels’ results are published by the Budget Directorate on a regular basis.

How does Chile’s structural balance rule compare to OECD practices?

Like Chile, most OECD countries have rule-based fiscal frameworks. According to the OECD, 27 out of its 31 country members10 have a rule-based fiscal framework. The countries that do not have a rule-based fiscal framework are Japan, Korea, Turkey and the United States. In most of the cases, the fiscal rules are supported by specific national legislation, guidelines or supranational agreements, except for the cases of Greece, Ireland and the Slovak Republic, in which fiscal policy is only constrained by the EU rule-based framework. The rationales that OECD countries put forward for the adoption of a fiscal rule are very diverse and include a combination of objectives such as ensuring public debt sustainability, addressing common pool problems in highly decentralized countries or within international arrangements, restraining domestic demand expansions, and tackling future ageing-related spending needs. Although several OECD countries, as Chile, derive an important part of government revenues from natural resources, only two of them, Mexico and Norway, have adopted special mechanisms to manage these revenues.

In contrast with Chile’s rule, which focuses only on one fiscal indicator, OECD countries’ fiscal rules usually include a combination of fiscal indicators. The most common combinations are (i) fiscal rules that include an upper limit on gross or net public debt or a desirable debt path and ceilings on one or several definitions of deficit (overall, structural balance, primary balance, and non-oil primary balance) (e.g., Maastricht Treaty and the Stability and Growth Pact); and (ii) fiscal rules that include ceilings for the overall balance and the level or the growth rate of expenditures (either in nominal or real terms) (e.g., Sweden, Finland, Netherlands) (see Appendix II). The rationale for combining several fiscal indicators derives from the difficulties of tackling at the same time, and with only one individual fiscal indicator, both sustainability and cyclicality issues. A few countries also complement their fiscal rules with borrowing rules (e.g., prohibition of central bank financing; “golden rules” according to which government borrowing must be equal to public investment) and revenues rules (e.g., caps on tax rates or rules to save revenues windfalls).

Most OECD fiscal rules are embedded in comprehensive institutional arrangements. These arrangements include fiscal responsibility laws; full-fledged medium-term fiscal and expenditure frameworks; well-defined escape clauses, which limit or suspend the application of the rule during exceptional circumstances; stringent transparency requirements; and special accountability mechanisms, such as the creation of non-partisan fiscal councils. In a few countries these institutional arrangements are even more important than the fiscal rule itself and some countries (New Zealand, Australia, and United Kingdom) do not even specify any numerical target.11 The relevance of these institutional arrangements responds to an increasing debate, among OECD countries, to consider rule-based fiscal frameworks as devices that seek (i) to maximize the reputational costs of breaching commitments but without formally restricting discretion; and (ii) to guide the public debate on fiscal policy, rather than put fiscal policy on automatic pilot (see Kumar and Ter-Minassian, (2007)). This debate has been driven by recent experience that shows that adequate institutional arrangements can deliver better fiscal outcomes than stand-alone mechanical numerical fiscal rules.12

IV. Options to Strengthen Chile’s Fiscal Rule

The previous analysis suggests that Chile’s structural balance rule would benefit from a few adjustments. The main areas for improvements could be: (i) simplifying the computation of the structural balance; (ii) avoiding any unintended procyclicality; (iii) adding a medium-term fiscal anchor; (iv) incorporating explicit escape clauses; (v) strengthening the rule’s monitoring and transparency mechanisms; and (vi) enhancing the rule’s enforcement and accountability procedures.

The methodology for the calculation of the structural balance needs to be easy to understand and replicate by independent third parties. One way to improve the methodology could be to adjust non-mining tax revenues for to the output gap of the non-mining GDP, instead of total GDP, which would also facilitate the estimation of more reasonable elasticities for each of the components of non-mining taxes vis-à-vis the cycle. Moreover, the structural balance target should be defined in primary terms, i.e., excluding net interest payment (interest payments minus interest receipts), and especially the sovereign funds’ returns. In addition, the current methodology to adjust mining revenues, which implies the recalculation of individual components of mining taxes at the long-term copper price, could be simplified and the existing room for discretion could be minimized. As an illustration, structural mining revenues (SRtm) could be computed by multiplying total mining revenues (Rtm) by the ratio between the long-term and actual copper prices, according to the following formula:

SRtm=Rtm*[Longterm Copper Pricet/Actual Copper Pricet]γ

where Long-term Copper Pricet < Actual Copper Pricet and γ is the estimated elasticity of mining revenues to the ratio of the actual copper price to the long-term copper price. Assuming that γ = 1, Figure 4 shows that the profile and level of the structural mining revenues, and therefore expenditures, would have been broadly in line with the results obtained by using the methodology currently applied by the authorities.

Figure 4.
Figure 4.

Chile: Structural Copper Revenues and Expenditures Under Alternative Price-based Corrections

Citation: IMF Working Papers 2011, 017; 10.5089/9781455211982.001.A001

Sources: Authorities, Haver Analytics, and staff calculations.

Unintended procyclicality could be reduced. This can be done: by (i) capping the annual growth rate of government expenditures in real terms; (ii) publishing on a routine basis the calculation of the structural non-mining primary balance (as a percent of non-mining GDP); and (iii) adding provisions to handle ex-post deviations to avoid last-minute fiscal tightening or loosening at the end of the year to comply with the rule, similar to the provisions applied by Germany and Switzerland (see Table 5). For example, the expenditure level determined by the structural balance rule, Et, could be considered as an upper limit. The ex-post deviations from the structural balance rule could be treated in the following way: (i) if the deviation is due to a larger ex-post level of structural revenues, the windfall will be saved, and the level of ex-post expenditure will be maintained at the initially planned level Et; (ii) if the deviation is due to a lower level of ex-post structural revenues, and therefore a higher level of ex-post structural deficit, the ex-post level of expenditure could also be maintained at Et. In this second case, the deviations in the structural balance could be stored in a notional account, with the obligation of adopting corrective actions in the next three years after the account reaches a certain level.

Table 5.

Management of Ex-post Deviations from Fiscal Rules in Selected OECD Countries

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Source: IMF (2009).

The Chile’s fiscal rule could be strengthened by including well-designed escape clauses. These clauses would define “exceptional circumstances” that would allow for temporary deviations in the face of a major shock. They should be limited to a short list (e.g., earthquake, the recent global crisis, a major demand imbalance under which the rule is declared in abeyance, see Table 6). They should also be precisely described with very limited discretion in interpreting events. An essential requirement also is to have pre-determined, credible and transparent procedural mechanisms (e.g., debate in congress) for the approval of the temporary departure from the rule. In addition, the rule should include provisions mandating the authorities to revise the government’s medium-term fiscal framework in a way that would allow fiscal accounts to return back to the rule.

Table 6.

Escape Clauses of Fiscal Rules in Selected OECD Countries

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Sources: Kumar and Ter-Minassian (2007) and IMF (2009).

The structural balance rule could benefit from the introduction of a long-term fiscal anchor. The anchor could be established as a target (e.g., defined as a floor within a reasonable range) for the government’s net financial wealth, which should be sufficient to cover existing contingent liabilities and provide the government with a buffer to counter unexpected shocks. This would require monitor the size of the overall balance on a routine basis as well as the number of consecutive overall deficits that will be allowed before modifying the numerical target of the structural balance. The achievement and monitoring of the long-term fiscal anchor could be supported by a full-fledged medium-term fiscal framework (MTFF), which will include rolling expenditures ceilings and non-mining revenues targets, long terms projections of copper revenues, and a full account of existing contingent liabilities. The MTFF could be subject to stress tests and sensitivity analysis, on a routine basis or under major changes in key parameters. The adoption of an MTFF is vital to limit, assess and correct ex-post deviations from the rule.

The transparency mechanisms of Chile’s fiscal rule could also be enhanced. Although not required by the FRL, the government provides the public with a large amount of high quality and relatively opportune information on budget formulation, execution and the performance under the structural rule. However, information is presented in a large number of documents that are difficult to reconcile. In addition, a consolidated assessment of the government’s assets and liabilities, and reconciliation with key flows, is not provided on a regular basis. Reforms should focus on reflecting in a legal document (e.g., a supreme decree) a set of well-defined transparency provisions so that they become permanent components of Chile’s fiscal framework, rather than depending on the goodwill of governments. The provisions should outline: (i) a clear calendar for fiscal reporting; (ii) the scope and contents of reports; and (iii) a clear mandate for the fiscal reports to include the financial statements and net asset position of public enterprises, the central bank and other public institutions and the consolidated net financial position of the government.

The rule’s accountability mechanisms could be strengthened, by expanding the mandate of the current panels of experts, and transforming them into an independent fiscal council (FPC). The adoption of a FPC is a reform that delegates part of the policy makers’ mandate to an independent and specialized body. Cross-country experience shows that this type of reform usually occurs slowly and encounters stiff opposition. However, a variety of FPCs operates in a number of countries (see Table 7) and seems to have contributed to fiscal discipline (see Kumar and Ter-Minassian (2007)). Country experience also shows that the desirable mandate and set up of FPC should be country specific. Chile could take advantage of its successful experience with the adoption of independent bodies such as the central bank’s independent Monetary Policy Committee and the two panels of experts that aid in the implementation of the structural balance rule. The FPC could provide: (i) objective analysis of current fiscal policy; (ii) independent projections and forecasts of key macrofiscal variables; and (iii) an assessment on the application of the rule, including by providing an opinion in the case the escape clauses are evoked and suggesting corrective actions. The FPC would have only an advisory role, with the final decision made by the government and congress, and should be accountable to the legislative branch.

Table 7.

Fiscal Councils in Selected OECD Countries

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Sources: Kumar and Ter-Minassian (2007) and web pages of the selected fiscal councils.

Looking ahead, the structural balance rule could envisage a cyclical adjustment on the expenditure side. At present, no cyclical adjustment is made to the expenditure side, because of the limited size of spending programs with a cyclical component, such as unemployment benefits. However, these programs could increase in size over time, which will translate into an increase in the size of the automatic stabilizers of Chile’s budget as well. Larger automatic stabilizers would strengthen the structural balance rule’s powers to minimize business cycle volatility and minimize the need for discretionary fiscal actions (see Kumhof and Laxton (2010)).

V. Conclusions and Summary

Chile has a broadly well-designed fiscal system, a strong reputation of prudent fiscal management, and an enviable fiscal position. The cornerstone of Chile’s impressive fiscal performance and strong fiscal system has been its structural balance rule. Since its inception in 2001, the rule has helped to preserve fiscal discipline, while leaving room for countercyclical policies. It has helped to insulate public spending from copper price cycles and improve the government’s net financial position. In addition, the structural balance rule has proved to be an effective communication tool of Chile’s fiscal policy.

Nonetheless, the rule could be strengthened in several ways. The improvements should envisage: (i) the simplification of the calculation of the structural balance; (ii) the adoption of well-designed escape clauses to allow discretionary responses to negative shocks; (iii) the minimization of the rule’s unintended procyclicality by incorporating provisions to deal with temporary ex-post deviations and capping the rate of growth of expenditures, especially in the context of sharp upward revisions in the long-term copper price; (iv) the introduction of an explicit long-term fiscal anchor, (e.g., in terms of a target for the government’s net financial position); (v) the institutionalization and strengthening of the transparency practices currently used by the Chilean authorities, by specifying them in a legal document, such as a supreme decree and expanding its coverage; and (vi) extending the scope and mandate of the panels of experts beyond their current responsibilities, by allowing them to provide an objective analysis of current fiscal policy and assess compliance with rule.

In addition, Chile’s authorities could seize this opportunity to strengthen their fiscal policy framework on a comprehensive way, beyond the strengthening of the fiscal rule, and in line with OECD countries. Chile should adopt a full-fledged medium-term fiscal framework to improve fiscal planning and provide a framework for addressing temporary deviations from the fiscal rule. Publishing additional fiscal indicators in the budget, such as the non-mining structural balance, could provide more comprehensive information on the impact of fiscal policy on the domestic demand.

The work of the Commission of Experts for the revision of the fiscal rule is progressing well. The Commission has so far produced a preliminary report (see Comité Asesor, 2010) that identifies most of the shortcomings and challenges pointed in this paper. The preliminary report, in addition, proposes a few methodological improvements in the calculation of the structural balance to be implemented immediately in the 2011 budget and provides a recalculation of the structural balance during the period 2001–2010 according to the new methodology. The Commission is expected to release its final report to the public in the first part of 2010.

Strengthening Chile's Rule-Based Fiscal Framework
Author: Ms. Teresa Daban Sanchez