As longstanding followers of this blog will know, I have a particular interest in what are called either ‘fiscal councils’ or ‘independent fiscal institutions’. As I have been and will be preoccupied with other issues for a while, I thought I would try and squeeze in one post on recent developments both in the UK and abroad.
In the UK we had Dave Ramsden’s Treasury review (pdf) of the OBR. The most positive aspect of the review is the recommendation for more resources. I guess the headline news was that the OBR would not be asked to cost opposition policies before elections, as the Dutch fiscal council has done for some time, and as the Australian PBO now does. I would have liked a different decision, but my disappointment is mitigated by three factors:
- the report does recommend the “OBR should ensure greater availability of tools and data to allow third parties to cost alternative policy options”.
- in the UK we have the IFS, which does do this and currently (and rightly) has a quasi-official status
- the level of the fiscal debate in the UK media is currently so poor that I’m not sure how much such a development would improve things.
This last point raises something of a paradox. People like me hoped that fiscal councils like the OBR would improve the public debate. This paradox reflects in part the particular nature of the OBR, which would not be allowed to say - for example - that the fiscal charter is economically illiterate (i.e. no economist agrees with it). Fiscal councils in some other countries can do that, and indeed were set up to do that. This is a gap the IFS cannot fill. I guess the OBR will not be allowed to comment on the economics of different fiscal rules until the UK gets a more sensible rule. I think it is quite likely that if the OBR was able to say such things, we would not have had this particular fiscal charter and we would all be better off as a result.
With the rapid growth in the number of fiscal councils around the world, the case for some kind of international network has become much stronger. It is therefore good news is that one is about to be established for those in the EU. There are at least two important roles such a network can have, apart from the obvious one of spreading best practice.
First, it can help establish and maintain independence for individual fiscal councils, which may be put under various kinds of pressure by their national governments. Sometimes this pressure is just verbal, and often indicates that the council is doing its job. I have just come back from Ireland, where the Irish fiscal council criticised a pre-election giveaway by the government. Its chairman John McHale also suggested that it might break the Commission’s fiscal rules. The government then revealed that it had obtained agreement from Brussels, but had not told the fiscal council. It managed to spin this as an error made by the council, which journalists dutifully parrotted. Substantive criticism was thereby deflected. That kind of thing from governments is only to be expected. It becomes more serious when governments react to criticism in financial or even existential terms, as has happened in Canada and Hungary. In those cases, the council needs all the defence it can get.
Second, a network can act as an important pressure group on the Commission. The Commission itself has recently established an Advisory Fiscal Board, which if nothing else can increase the dialogue between the fiscal councils and the Commission. I talked about the dual system of fiscal monitoring within Europe here, and how I hope we will see a gradual reduction in central control and more discretion given to national governments monitored by strong national fiscal councils. If Daniel Gros is right and German hegemony is coming to an end, then maybe it might just happen - one day.