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Disappearing Deficits

Suppose a government must reduce its budget deficit. Perhaps it made a commitment to do so; perhaps investors are beginning to doubt its ability to repay debt. It could cut spending or raise taxes, but that is painful and unpopular. What can it do?

In our work at the IMF, we sometimes discover that governments choose to employ accounting devices that make the deficit smaller without actually causing any pain, and without actually improving public finances.

In ideal accounting, this would not be possible. In real accounting, it sometimes is.

How the devices work

Some governments, for example, have been able to reduce their reported deficits by taking over companies’ pensions schemes. The government’s obligation to make future pension payments has a real cost, but it doesn’t count as a liability in the accounting. So when the government receives a pension scheme’s assets from the company, it can treat the receipt of those assets as revenue that reduces its deficit.

Many other governments have been able to defer spending, without significantly reducing it in the long run, by entering into public-private partnerships. Under these contracts, a private company builds and maintains an asset like a road or a hospital. In return, the government agrees to pay the company for its costs over 20 or 30 years. In a sense, the government has bought the asset on an installment plan, but government accounting seldom counts this obligation as a liability.

In each of the above cases—and in others analyzed in my note, Accounting Devices and Fiscal Illusions—the government’s deficit is lower at first, but only at the expense of bigger future deficits.

Improving transparency

The problem with the use of accounting devices is that the pain of spending cuts and tax increases is not avoided; it’s postponed and perhaps made worse. Accounting devices can also make the deficit a less accurate fiscal indicator, making it harder for citizens, journalists, think tanks, investors, rating agencies—and the government itself—to understand the true state of public finances.

The use of accounting devices cannot be eliminated, but several things can be done to reduce their use or at least bring them quickly to light:

The chart below illustrates the last point and, in particular, shows the value of having two different indicators of the deficit in the United States. One is a mainly cash-based measure; the other, the net operating surplus, is more like the bottom line of a private company’s income statement. One cause of the difference between the two indicators is that the cost of incurring obligations to pay future pensions to government employees shows up in the net operating surplus but not in the budget surplus.

These proposals do create more work for government accountants and statisticians, but the problems created by accounting devices cannot be solved with the stroke of a pen. Getting an accurate picture of government finances requires hard work, careful checks, and a willingness on the part of analysts to look at several different measures of the deficit.