Escape from Procyclicality: Fiscal Policy in Developing Countries

This column is co-authored with Carlos Végh and Guillermo Vuletin and was published in VoxEU.

Everywhere one looks, problems of fiscal policy are now center stage. Among advanced countries, the news is bad: Europe’s periphery teeters, the U.K. slashes, the U.S. deadlocks, Japan muddles. But in the rest of the world there is better news: In an historic reversal, many emerging market and developing countries have over the last decade achieved a countercyclical fiscal policy.

In the past, developing countries tended to follow procyclical fiscal policy: they increased spending (or cut taxes) during periods of expansion and cut spending (or raised taxes) during periods of recession. Many authors have documented that fiscal policy has tended to be procyclical in developing countries, in comparison with a pattern among industrialized countries that has been by and large countercyclical. (References for this proposition and others are available.) Most studies look at the procyclicality of government spending, because tax receipts are particularly endogenous with respect to the business cycle. Indeed, an important reason for procyclical spending is precisely that government receipts from taxes or mineral royalties rise in booms, and the government cannot resist the temptation or political pressure to increase spending proportionately, or even more than proportionately. One can find a similar pattern on the tax side by focusing on tax rates rather than revenues, though cross-country evidence is harder to come by.

Figure I (which is a version of evidence presented in Kaminsky, Reinhart and Vegh, 2004) depicts the correlation between government spending and GDP for 94 countries over the period 1960-1999. More precisely, it shows the correlation between the cyclical components of spending and GDP; the longer term trends are taken out. The set includes 21 developed countries, which are represented by black bars, and 73 developing countries, represented by yellow bars. A positive correlation indicates government spending that is procyclical, that is, destabilizing. A negative correlation indicates countercyclical spending, that is, stabilizing.