By Dr. Sebastian Galiani, Professor of Economics, University of Maryland 1
The present government in Argentina inherited a particularly high level of public spending compared to the country’s own history. Consolidated public expenditure for the three levels of government − nation, province and municipalities − reached 42.2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2015. This is an almost 17 point hike from before the 2001-2002 crisis when this expenditure was 25.6% of GDP.
Three areas drove such growth in public spending. First, the public wage bill grew 4.8 points of GDP since 1998 − mainly driven by the provinces and municipalities. Second, pension benefits grew 4.7 points of GDP since 1998. And third, private transfers increased 5.0 points of GDP, of which subsidies to public services represented 3.6% of GDP. In contrast, public investment almost did not grow during 1998 to 2015, at 1.4 points of GDP. The end result was a level of primary spending that is higher than that of all Argentina’s Latin American neighbors, and up to 8 percentage points above what is expected for a country at its level of GDP per capita.
So what does fiscal space mean for developed economies? The OECD and IMF view the concept in terms of long-term debt sustainability. By this approach, fiscal space is interpreted as the distance between actual debt levels and a theoretical higher level of debt that is nonetheless safe. Fiscal space suggests how much wiggle-room national governments have to increase growth-enhancing spending, such as infrastructure investment, without raising taxes. This is important in the current context of a sluggish global economy where monetary policy has done all it can to support growth and the pressure is thus on fiscal policy and structural reform to propel the recovery.