Fiscal sustainability in the industrial countries: risks and challenges

BIS Annual Economic Report  | 
28 June 2010

The level of public debt in many industrial countries is on an unsustainable path. Current budget deficits, partly cyclical but also swollen by policy responses to the crisis, are large in relation to GDP. And expenditures related to ageing populations are set to increase considerably over the next few decades. Recent events in Greece and other southern European countries have shown how quickly investors' doubts about the sustainability of public finances in one country can spill over to others. In addition, high levels of public debt may lower long-term economic growth and ultimately endanger monetary stability.

These risks underscore the urgent need for credible measures to reduce current fiscal deficits in several industrial countries. Tackling the long-term fiscal imbalances requires structural reforms aimed at boosting the growth of potential output and containing the future increase in age-related expenditures. Such measures may have adverse effects on output growth in the short term, but the alternative of having to cope with a sudden loss in market confidence would be much worse. A programme of fiscal consolidation - cutting deficits by several percentage points of GDP over a number of years - would offer significant benefits of low and stable long-term interest rates, a less fragile financial system and, ultimately, better prospects for investment and long-term growth.