How did Fiscal Rules Hold Up in the Commodity Price Crash?
In NRGI’s new study, we reviewed the characteristics of fiscal rules in countries assessed in the Resource Governance Index (RGI). Out of the 79 countries covered by the index, 34 have at least one fiscal rule in place. The most common types of rule are debt ceilings and various types of budget balance targets. We also analyzed the levels of compliance with these rules in 2015 and 2016, the years directly following the commodity price crash, when oil prices fell by half and mineral prices by one-third. As such, it provides new insight into how these fiscal rules performed during serious economic shocks. We found that in these two years governments adhered fully to the rules in only six countries (Figure 1). In 25 cases, governments suspended, modified or disregarded their rules. Governments breached rules in a wide range of countries, rich and poor.
What are the reasons for this low level of compliance with fiscal rules? First, many of the fiscal rules were not appropriately designed. Some rules (especially debt ceilings) were too easy to accommodate and made compliance trivial, while other rules proved constraining given the shock precipitated by the commodity price drop. Few governments have well-defined escape clauses to evoke when faced with a commodity price shock.
Second, a number of countries did not follow their rules in good times either, or used questionable practices to modify or disregard them. Compliance was especially weak in countries with limited or no national oversight of fiscal rules. No countries complied with supranational rules in the period reviewed.
Figure 2. Oversight institutions monitoring fiscal rules compliance across RGI countries (Click on the figure for a better image quality)
Only a third of the countries have a national oversight organization (e.g., a fiscal council) monitoring observance of these rules (Figure 2). The most common are supreme audit institutions, fiscal councils, or parliamentary budget offices. These institutions vary in their level of independence and capacities, and not all of them produce reports that clearly show whether governments are observing the rules.
Countries often provide limited and technical public information on fiscal rules and whether governments are complying with them. The lack of public engagement on fiscal issues ultimately makes them easy for governments to discard. This limits the effectiveness of these long-term commitments, which governments often sacrifice in favor of short-term political gains.
Our paper makes the following recommendations, some of which - especially those regarding the oversight of fiscal rules - apply beyond just resource-rich countries:
- Resource-producing countries without fiscal rules should consider adopting them to promote fiscal sustainability and counter-cyclical spending. They should tailor them to their resource endowments, economic situation, and the country’s governance context.
- To be effective, fiscal rules need awareness and oversight from followers of public policy. Governments should inform citizens about the rules through the budgetary process. The media, parliament, civil society organizations, think tanks, financial sector institutions, and credit rating agencies should also play a role in monitoring the rules.
- The international community and economists/experts should do more to inform stakeholders as to why counter-cyclical and sustainable fiscal policy is key to growth and diversification. More effort should go into supporting implementation rather than codifying new fiscal rules.
 David Mihalyi is a Senior Economic Analyst at the National Resource Governance Institute, London, and Visiting Research Fellow at the Central European University, Hungary (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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