Posted by Elif C. Arbatli 
Adopting numerical fiscal rules has been an integral part of the policy response to the medium-term fiscal consolidation challenge posed by the global financial crisis. According to Schaechter et. al. (2012), since 2009, at least 16 countries have adopted new national fiscal rules and many others are in the pipeline. The crisis has also revealed the need for reforming supranational rules, such as the Stability and Growth Pact of the EU and as a result new structural budget balance rules will be adopted in almost all of the EU member states as part of the “fiscal compact.” A recent paper by Charles Wyplosz titled “Fiscal Rules: Theoretical Issues and Historical Experiences,” is a timely review of the theoretical underpinnings of fiscal indiscipline and how numerical fiscal rules can help. Wyplosz argues that fiscal rules are neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve fiscal discipline; but that thoughtfully designed fiscal rules can be effective when supplemented with fiscal institutions (and in particular fiscal councils) that are tailored to the political institutions of the country.
The paper first looks at the theoretical underpinnings of fiscal indiscipline, known as the “common pool problem”. The common pool problem arises when the beneficiaries of public spending or tax policies do not take into account the externalities that these policies impose on other groups (within a population, across different generations, among different levels of government or different states within a monetary union). Fiscal rules can in principle reduce these externalities by imposing explicit principles for fiscal behavior and thereby lowering the scope for deficit bias. According to Wyplosz, there are two key challenges: 1) fiscal rules cannot be fully contingent and hence they are subject to the “time-inconsistency problem” and 2) fiscal rules cannot be fully binding since they can be manipulated, changed or simply ignored. He argues that fiscal institutions (in particular, fiscal councils or other arrangements that give authority to an independent body to interpret rules) can help overcome these challenges.