Transcript of the April 2021 Fiscal Monitor Press Briefing

April 7, 2021


Vitor Gaspar, Director, Fiscal Affairs Department

Paolo Mauro, Deputy Director, Fiscal Affairs Department

Ting Yan, Communications Officer, Communications Department

Ms. Yan: Good morning everyone. Welcome to this Press Conference on the IMF's Fiscal Monitor. My name is Ting Yan. I am from the Communications Department. I hope you and your families are all doing well and are staying safe. Let me first introduce our speakers today. We have Vitor Gaspar, Director of the Fiscal Affairs Department at the IMF, and Paolo Mauro, Deputy Director of the Fiscal Affairs Department. As we speak, our latest Fiscal Monitor Report, A Fair Shot, has just been published on Vitor will first give us some opening remarks to highlight some key messages, and then we will take your questions. Vitor, the floor is yours.

Mr. Gaspar: Thank you, Ting. Thank you for your interest on fiscal policy developments all around the world. COVID‑19 was declared a pandemic over one year ago. Lives lost approach 3 million. The human and social consequences have been profound. Most dramatic was the reversal in the trend decline in extreme poverty and food deprivation. The pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on the poor, youth, and workers without a college degree or in low‑paying jobs. Setbacks in the education of children threaten to leave behind deep and lasting scars on life prospects. The response to fiscal policy was unprecedented in speed and size. Governments provided fiscal support in a timely and decisive way.

In the last 12 months, countries have announced US$16 trillion in fiscal actions. In most countries, the fiscal response was in order of magnitude larger than the norm for business‑cycle fluctuations. That was fully justified as COVID‑19 is a health emergency.

It was crucial to financially enable health systems and to extend emergency lifelines to households and firms. In 2021, there was a strong increase in debt and deficits, especially in advanced economies, where public debt jumped up more than 16 percentage points to more than 120 percent of GDP.

In these countries, the budget deficit shot up around 9 percentage points of GDP to 11.7 percent. Deficits also increased in emerging markets, low‑income and developing economies but less so. Given widening deficits and the contraction in economic activity, debt worldwide increased sharply to 97 percent of GDP in 2020. It will increase slower to 99 percent in 2021 before stabilizing below but close to 100 percent of GDP.

In 2020, fiscal policy also contributed to mitigate falling economic activity and employment. It avoided falls on the scale of the great depression. Indeed, our latest estimates point to a contraction smaller than forecast just a few months ago. Growth forecasts for 2021 have also been revised up.

Gradually economies and societies have improved their ability to cope with the pandemic. The U.S. provides a good example of forceful use of fiscal policy. Since the fall of 2020, the U.S. approved US$2.8 trillion in additional fiscal actions. Remarkably enough, the path of the public debt ratio is revised down. The main determinants are revision down to the fiscal deficit for 2020 and the negative difference between the interest rate and the growth rate, especially in 2021 and 2020. These effects are large enough to offset the increase in the budget deficit.

Focusing now on economic activity for the U.S., in 2022, it is notable that we are now projected to be above pre‑COVID‑19 forecasts, but the main theme of the Fiscal Monitor is a fair shot. A fair shot reminds us of an amazing success in 2020. The first development of highly effective vaccines and the start of the vaccination process, but progress has been very uneven across countries and regions of the world.

If progress in vaccination is accelerated further and reaches everybody, the health, social, economic, and financial benefits would be enormous. Even in narrow focus on tax revenues for advanced economies alone identify potential gains of more than US$1 trillion over the medium term. Vaccination may well be the highest return global public project ever identified.

At the present, the evolution of COVID‑19 and its repercussions are highly uncertain, and a key priority for policies is to remain agile and flexible to respond to the exigencies of a fast‑evolving situation.

The balance between supporting households and firms with emergency lifelines and facilitate transformation will evolve over time. The latter will become more important as the transition to resilient, sustainable, and inclusive growth takes central stage.

COVID‑19 will leave behind complex legacies. Focus narrowly on public finances, there are two important remarks to make.

First, countries with easier access to financing or larger buffers were able to deploy stronger fiscal support in 2020 and are expected to maintain it for longer.

They are also expected to recover faster. Credible medium‑term fiscal frameworks are key to deal with the risks associated with historically high public debt levels and to identify and manage tradeoffs associated with the conduct of fiscal policy over time.

Second, countries are in different stages of COVID‑19 and of the economic recovery. Structural characteristics, institutional characteristics are also distinct. This set of viable policies depend on financing constraints.

It is important to stress that developing countries are facing dramatic tradeoffs. Going forward there is the risk that access to financing will become even harder. The bottom line is fiscal policy must be tailored to fit country‑specific circumstances. "A Fair Shot" is also the title of Chapter 2 of the Fiscal Monitor. Giving everyone access to a vaccine shot may well be the best investment of all, but Chapter 2 argues further that it is crucial to give everyone a fair shot at life's success.

The Fiscal Monitor documents that preexisting inequalities have made COVID‑19 worse, but at the same time, COVID‑19 has aggravated inequalities. Such a vicious circle threatens to open a seismic crack in the social fabric. To preserve trust and social cohesion, Chapter 2 calls for stronger redistributive policies and for universal access to basic public services, healthcare, education, Social Security.

That will in many countries require substantial increases in tax capacity and improvements in the efficiency of public spending. Such strong demand on public policies require good government. And good government in turn is grounded on transparent and accountable commitment to a fair shot for all.

Paolo Mauro and I are now ready to answer any questions that you may have. Thank you for your attention.

Ms. Yan: Thank you very much, Vitor. Now we are happy to take your questions. You may submit your questions on IMF Press Center or you can ask questions via WebEx. I see that we already have many questions. Let us take the first question from Yicai, please go ahead.

Questioner: So my first question is, as the global public debt is at an all‑time high level during the COVID‑19 crisis, what can governments do to support a more inclusive economic recovery down the road and at the same time to avoid injecting too much stimulus or a [moderate] stimulus? And maybe you can talk about China in particular as China's fiscal policy will remain proactive and more sustainable this year, [promoting efficiency] and quality, so if you could share your thoughts on this. Thank you.

Mr. Gaspar: Thank you so much. So, indeed, as I emphasized in my opening remarks, the global public debt has reached record highs, as you point out. It is very important to stress that debt was the reflection of a decisive action by governments to contain COVID‑19 and its consequences. It was a timely and decisive action that avoided much worse outcomes. I spoke about having avoided a fall‑‑a contraction in economic activity and employment in the scale of the great depression.

Going forward, I would emphasize two aspects and two aspects alone. First of all, progress in vaccination seems to be extremely important to contain COVID‑19 in countries and to avoid divergencies across countries. That is why I am been insisting that vaccination is probably the best investment of all, but countries also have very different circumstances.

The dynamics of COVID‑19 are different, as are economic recoveries. So fiscal policies have to be adapted to fit, and countries are facing this intertemporal tradeoff between fiscal support in the short run and building buffers from a medium to long‑term perspective. Those intertemporal tradeoffs, those aspects to do with fiscal policy over time, can be much helped by credible medium‑term frameworks.

China is one of the countries that has recovered faster during the course of 2020. Levels of economic activity have already recovered to pre‑COVID‑19 levels. China is expected to grow very strongly in 2021 to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Clearly China as for fiscal space should maintain flexibility in fiscal policy and avoid withdrawing fiscal support prematurely.

Quite importantly, going forward, China can use fiscal policy to facilitate the transformation to a new growth model in China, a model that relies less on investment in public infrastructure, relies more on private consumption and support to households. In that context, strengthening social safety nets in China and reforming the tax system are important opportunities for progress. Thank you for your questions.

Ms. Yan: Our next question comes from Reuters. Please go ahead. We cannot hear you. So maybe while we wait for Reuters, let us see if we can connect to Press Trust India on WebEx.

Questioner: Thank you. Thank you for doing this. I have two quick questions, if you can. What is your assessment of India's debt crisis? What impact is this having on the Indian economy? What is IMF's recommendation to address this crisis?

Mr. Mauro: Sure. You say you have two questions. Let me address‑‑I thought I only heard one.

Mr. Jha: I can say the second one if you want. It is all related: How has COVID impacted the debt crisis in emerging markets and the third world? What are the IMF recommendations to address the challenge?

Mr. Mauro: So both questions relate to the debt situation, and I will start by saying that I would not characterize the situation in India the way that you have. The way we look at it is that, of course, the pandemic has hurt India and other emerging markets very hard. The priority going forward, of course, is to focus on getting the virus under control. It is to focus on vaccination because that is what is going to bring the recovery. Through that economic recovery will also help the public finances.

We have seen very substantial increases in debt ratios, as Mr. Gasper said in his opening remarks. In the case of India, the debt ratio at the end of 2019, prior to the pandemic, was 74 percent, 74 percent of GDP, and at the end of 2020, it is almost 90 percent of GDP. So that's a very large increase, but it is something that other emerging markets and advanced economies have experienced as well.

And for the case of India going forward, in our baseline forecast, we expect that the debt ratio will gradually come down as the economy recovers. In our baseline forecast under the assumption of healthy economic growth in the medium term, we see debt returning to about 80 percent over time.

Now, the immediate priorities are to continue supporting people and firms, and, in particular, to focus on supporting the most vulnerable.

At the same time, it is important to reassure the general public and investors that the public finance is under control and the way to do so is through a credible medium‑term fiscal framework. This year India has already announced its budget. It continues to be accommodative. It continues to support health, and it continues to support people. Over the next years, it is quite likely that the deficit will be reduced in part as the economy recovers.

More generally in emerging markets, the priority, given the very large increases in inequality, given the large increases in public debt, is to mobilize revenues in the medium term.

Mr. Gaspar: If I may add on emerging markets in general, when we focus on the specific case of emerging markets, we see that the differences across countries are extremely important. The point that I made in general a moment ago, that countries with better access to financing, countries with stronger buffers, countries with stronger fundamentals have been able to give more fiscal support during 2020. They can sustain that fiscal support for longer, and they have more options in terms of policymaking. It is very clear when we focus on the group of emerging markets specifically.

So speaking about emerging markets as a group, when looking at the current situation, ignores the need for fiscal policies to be tailored to fit to country circumstances, which is a very important point to make. Clearly there are risks. On occasion we have turmoil or even turbulence in markets. When it is necessary to act to restore confidence of markets and our membership, the IMF stands ready to act and has a financial capacity of about $1 trillion.

Ms. Yan: Thank you, Paolo and Vitor. Let us try Reuters again.

Questioner: Hi there. Thanks for doing the call. Just a follow up on the medium‑term fiscal framework we were talking about. What kind of time frame is necessary to do this? On one side you are saying keep up the support, make it targeted, make it green, make it inclusive. It is something that you want countries to start to do. Which countries are in the most need to do this and for what time period are we talking about? Is it 2022 and beyond, 2025 and beyond? Can you give us a time frame?

Mr. Gaspar: So the credible medium‑term fiscal frameworks are extremely important to manage public finance risks and tackle issues that involve fiscal policy over time. At this point in time, since we would like to see a fast transition to a new growth model, a growth model that is inclusive, green, smart, resilient, we need to have a relatively long horizon in our policies. And the medium term, if you allow me to use a very imprecise expression, the medium term is getting longer, and most countries do face growth and development challenges that require quite a long timeframe.

Just think about the time frame that has been used to discuss the recently presented American jobs plan. Just think about the time horizon that has been used in the projections of the Office for Budget Responsibility for the U.K. Just think about the challenges of sustainable development in Sub‑Saharan Africa. Just think about how long it will take to bring down record level public debt, so on and so forth. So, indeed, having a long time horizon, thinking about the long run is a very important priority right now.

Mr. Mauro: Maybe I can complement that, just saying a couple of words about the design of the medium‑term fiscal frameworks and how those can change depending on the type of country that we are looking at. There are countries that are very constrained in their access to finance, and for those it is important to mobilize revenues very soon. Whereas for some other countries that have ample access to financing, for those countries, they may be able to afford saying in their medium‑term fiscal framework, that an increase in taxation will come, but it will come a few years from now.

Ms. Yan: Thank you. Next let us take a question from Today News Africa.

Questioner: Yes, thank you for taking my question. Thank you for doing this. My question goes to Mr. Gaspar. Please help me understand, so we have this global crisis, more than 150 deaths and a million people contracted the virus [inaudible] but Africa is less affected. We have fewer cases. We have fewer deaths. But Africa is carrying the economic crisis and [inaudible] collect debtor loans from international organizations such as the IMF. The IMF grants African countries no money in one year and then granted in [inaudible], yet the tailored process in those African countries provided almost zero percent, between 1 and 2 percent of fiscal support to the population, no money to the [inaudible], no money to stimulate [inaudible]. So my question is, what this investment, was it just [inaudible]‑‑was it just we are getting loan to [inaudible] countries and does it appear that those loans, they are not really going to the economy and going to the people. You have to make it an impact on the economy. Thank you.

Mr. Mauro: Thank you for your question. I did not fully capture it but let me do my best. What I heard is a concern that in African countries, the extent to which governments have been able to provide support through expenditures has been more constrained than elsewhere. I also heard you say that so far, while very tragic, the impact on health has perhaps been less severe than initially anticipated.

I think that, overall, the support on the part of governments in Sub‑Saharan Africa has been in the good direction but very constrained. It is been constrained by the very limited availability of vaccines. That is a very important priority. We want to make sure that the global community does provide the ability to vaccinate everybody. That is very urgent.

It has also been constrained by the fact that most Sub‑Saharan African countries have difficulty accessing capital markets to the extent that would be necessary to provide a very forceful support to people and firms. If you look at the numbers in the Fiscal Monitor, you will see that deficits in low‑income countries have risen, but they have risen mostly because of the collapse in revenues, and on average the increase in spending has actually been extremely limited, not at all the situation that we have in advanced economies where spending has increased.

So when we look at the composition of spending in low‑income countries, what we see is that there has been an increase in spending that is related to COVID. Overall priority spending in the sense of spending on healthcare has remained about stable. That says that perhaps some items in healthcare have already had to be cut in order to make room for spending on COVID‑19.

We also know anecdotally that several countries have had to cut investment. So there is definitely a concern about access to financing. Now, the global community can provide additional grants, can provide additional financing, but, again, that is kind of work in progress at the moment.

So far the IMF has provided emergency financing to, I believe, 35 countries in Sub‑Saharan Africa in the order of US$16 billion. Other initiatives that are coming from the global financial community include the Debt Service Suspension Initiative. The IMF has also provided relief on debt payments to the IMF via the Catastrophe Compensation and Relief Trust. Again, these initiatives are there and definitely we need to continue in this direction.

Ms. Yan: Thank you. Let us also take one question from online IMF Press Center. It is a question from The Guardian. The question is, can you expand on your idea of temporary income tax or wealth taxes for the better‑off. How much would you expect them to raise?

Mr. Mauro: So let me take that question in a broader context because I think it is important. As I mentioned earlier and as is outlined in our Fiscal Monitor, we see that preexisting differences in access to healthcare and education have made the impact of COVID‑19 worse. We also know that the pandemic has increased inequality. Governments have had to provide support to people and firms, which has implied an increase in debt. So if you put those things together, it implies that there is a need to mobilize additional fiscal revenues. Those additional fiscal revenues will then have to be redeployed through healthcare, education, social safety nets.

Now, different groups of countries can do so in different ways. For example, in most low income and most emerging economies, the priority would be to improve tax administration. It would be to collect more value‑added taxes, consumption taxes more generally.

In advanced economies, we have seen over the past years an erosion in revenues from the corporate income tax. There is a very important international initiative now in that direction to come to an agreement. And we have also seen an erosion in the taxation of personal incomes for those individuals who are at the very top of the income scale.

So in advanced economies, there is an opportunity to reverse some of that erosion through action, both on the corporate income tax and also other taxes such as personal income taxes, or closing loopholes in capital income taxation, property taxes, inheritance taxes. So there is a whole menu of options available to policymakers.

One specific option that is available to policymakers would be a COVID‑19 recovery contribution that could take the form, for example, of a surcharge on the personal income tax or a surcharge on corporate income taxes given that some corporates have done very well and have done very well in terms of stock market valuation. There is an opportunity there, and that is one of the options that is on the table.

Ms. Yan: Let me turn back to WebEx. We have a question from AFP.

Questioner: Hello, everyone. Thanks for taking my question. Actually, I have two questions, one on the Euro Area. I would like to know, what is your view and recommendation for the European countries, which are lagging for the moment compared with the U.S. And the second question is related to the corporation tax in the U.S. The Biden administration plans to increase the tax on corporates to finance the investment in infrastructure. Is this a good idea? The Republicans say this measure would restrain American growth. Do you agree with this idea, please?

Mr. Gaspar: I may take those two questions. So on Europe first, when we look at Europe, we see that the response of fiscal policy in Europe has been in line with the response that we have seen in the world in general but in particular in advanced economies. That is, the response was very speedy and very large. It did support the health system, households, and firms. It put a floor on the downside. And the fiscal policy support will be lasting into 2021. So qualitatively, we have that Europe, the Euro Area, has had fiscal policy completely in line with that of other advanced economies.

If one looks at actions taken from the viewpoint of Europe itself, one has to recognize quite substantial progress in the ability of Europe to act together. From that viewpoint, the best example is the European resources, Europe‑wide resources that were put at the disposal of the Next Generation European Union (EU) program. And those EUR 750 billion should be executed in high‑quality projects that facilitate the green transition, that facilitate digitalization in Europe, that in general support high‑quality spending in member states.

The ability of Europe to act in budgetary terms at the level of the union as a whole is extremely important progress, as is the ability to finance the European Union budget through bonds during a significant period of time.

So this is quite remarkable, and it is very important progress. There are challenges associated with implementation. There are challenges associated with speed of execution, but this is quite important institutional progress going forward.

I got so carried away in response to your question on Europe that I forgot your second question, but you are going to remind me.

Questioner: Yes, thank you. The second question is about the plans of the Biden administration about the increase of corporate tax to finance the investment in infrastructures. So my question was is this something you recommend. Is there any risk that it could restrain the growth in the future or investment in the U.S.?

Mr. Gaspar: Very good. I will respond to that question telegraphically because it is a very rich question.

Ms. Yan: Before you answer, Vitor, Reuters just sent a related question. Let me add on that. Her question is, does spending on elder care, childcare, homecare count as infrastructure spending from the IMF's point of view? So maybe you can answer both together.

Mr. Gaspar: Of course. We have been arguing for many years that it is very important, the process of development, to invest in people and infrastructure. And the role of human capital, the role of people in the process of development is absolutely central. The details in these types of policies matter.

At this point in time, when it comes to the American infrastructure and the jobs plan, we do not know yet the details so we cannot comment on the details of the plan, but the emphasis on investing in people and infrastructure is in line with priorities that the IMF has been emphasizing for many years.

Three things telegraphically to the earlier question on the plan and the corporate tax role in its financing. The first element is that it is a very good illustration of the need to balance the spending and revenue side of the budget and the need to think about how fiscal policy evolves over time. If you want to look at a more detailed program of this type, you can look at the U.K. budget.

You can look at the analysis that the Office of Budget Responsibility made of the U.K. budget, and you do see fiscal support at this point in time in the U.K. and a commitment to increase taxation and, in particular, corporate income taxation in the future. So very much in this period of the Biden plan, the importance of fiscal policy over time, the importance of balancing spending and revenues.

The second aspect, which I believe is also very important, is that in earlier research by the IMF, not on the Biden plan, but on the previous corporate tax cuts in the U.S. Our estimates pointed to relatively small limited impacts on investment, smaller impacts that one would expect ex ante. So our prejudice at this point in time, before having had a chance to analyze the plan, is that the impacts from increasing corporate tax rates would be limited as well.

That leads me to my last point, which is actually the one I feel most strongly about. The way this is framed in the Biden plan, as stressed by the Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, is in the context of an effort at the global level to combat tax avoidance and evasion and to make sure that much multinational corporations pay their fair share in taxation.

So the Biden plan not only would increase corporate income tax rates in the United States, but would be framed in the context of a cooperative agreement at the global level that would increase the minimum tax at the global level to 21 percent. Without commenting on the exact number because we have not looked at that aspect of the proposal yet, the IMF has been calling for a minimum global corporate income tax rate as a way to interrupt the race to the bottom in corporate income taxation, and that is something which is important to ensure that governments have the resources needed to the various spending priorities that they have to serve, and that is something that we believe can be extremely important for the financing of developing countries that has been mentioned many times in this press conference.

Mr. Mauro: Allow me to just complement what Vitor just said by advertising the book that the Fiscal Affairs Department has just issued on corporate income taxes under pressure, which exactly makes the case for this type of international agreement.

Ms. Yan: Thank you.

Mr. Gaspar: I am really sorry for this addition, but I cannot resist. I wrote the forward for that book, which is available as a free download on the IMF website.

In that forward, the last two sentences say, "I hope that 2021 will be a year marked by international cooperation and a deal on international corporate tax will be a very important element in achieving such a global cooperation. So I really think that this is central. I really think that this is important.

Ms. Yan: Thank you. So before we wrap up, we have a question sent from Agência Estado. He has two questions: How do you see the risks for the Brazilian economy in the short run and the uncertainty about the fiscal policy. Also, Brazil has been facing a very slow vaccination rollout. How do you see the risk for the fiscal account for this year if the economy continues to have a poor performance, especially because the vaccination does not advance in the next months?

Mr. Gaspar ‑ So, I will try to answer your two questions in one go. The issue to do with uncertainties in COVID‑19, uncertainties in the economic and fiscal repercussions from COVID‑19 illustrates the very strong uncertainty that we have all around the world on COVID‑19. We do not have the ability to forecast the evolution of the pandemic in detail. Gita Gopinath has been emphasizing an uncertainty associated with a race between the vaccines and the virus and it is mutations. Brazil unfortunately does illustrate this race. The dynamics of COVID‑19 in the recent past in Brazil have been unfavorable. Cases have increased and, more dramatically, the number of fatalities has increased sharply, and some mutations have, according to reports, played an important role in those developments. We emphasize it is important that fiscal policy remains agile and flexible to support those who need support. Brazil in 2020 did it very successfully. And the programs that the government put in place in 2020 delivered both in terms of the situation of households in Brazil but also in terms of their support to economic activity.

So clearly we have an excellent example of why is it the case that one has to be aware of important uncertainty, why policies have been tailored to fit the specific circumstances of the country, and why vaccination is such an important priority. This is the first point of two points that I want to make.

The second point is that if one looks at Brazil from a very long‑run perspective, one sees that in the last 20 plus years, there has been quite a substantial progress in terms of macroeconomic fundamentals in Brazil. This progress is specific of Brazil, but it will look around the world, there has been quite substantial progress across the world in terms of the quality of macroeconomic management.

One important element in that progress is the adoption of inflation targeting and the independence of central banks pursuing an inflation‑targeting strategy, and Brazil has made tremendous progress in that direction, a progress that benefited Brazil in terms of the development of its domestic financial markets and allowed for complementarities between fiscal and monetary policy.

Institutions on the fiscal side are still a work in progress. It is extremely important that Brazil continues to persevere in that direction. At this point in time, one of the most important pillars of the fiscal framework in Brazil is the spending ceiling, and the spending ceiling should be considered an anchor to be valued and preserved even in this extremely demanding circumstances.

One area where Brazil can make further progress is by investing in building a robust and credible medium‑term framework. Brazil has a high level of debt at this point in time. Towards the end of our forecast horizon, it will reach about 100 percent of GDP in terms of its public debt, but we should never forget that our revisions to global economic prospects have been up and that has been favorable to countries all around the world and, for example, it is fair to say that in our last forecast round, the path to public debt to GDP in Brazil has actually been revised down. And I will stop here.

Ms. Yan: Thank you, Vitor. Thank you, Paolo. Thank you for joining us today. This concludes our press conference and have a great day. Thank you.

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