Download publication

Essay / Lecture

Fiscal federalism: US history for architects of Europe’s fiscal union

Ever since first the blueprints for monetary union in Europe were drawn up, the United States, considered as a collection of individual states or regions, has served as a benchmark for assessing its feasibility and evaluating alternative policy options.

By: and Date: January 10, 2012 Topic: Global Economics & Governance

Ever since first the blueprints for monetary union in Europe were drawn up, the United States, considered as a collection of individual states or regions, has served as a benchmark for assessing its feasibility and evaluating alternative policy options. Starting with Robert Mundell’s seminal 1961 article on optimal currency areas, countless papers have explored the inner workings of US labour, product and capital markets, and of its public finances, in the hope of learning lessons for Europe.

It could be argued that this US inspiration is mistaken. After all, it is not the only economic and monetary federation in the world. Other federations work on different principles – especially when it comes to public finances – and there is no guarantee that US arrangements are optimal – especially, again, regarding public finances. But we know the US better and we think we understand it better, so success or failure relative to the US test carries much more weight than with the Australian, Canadian, Indian or Swiss tests. For better or worse, the US remains our ultimate policy laboratory.

This essay on US fiscal federalism by Randall Henning and Martin Kessler builds on the established tradition. But unlike many papers that take current US features as a given, they tell us what present arrangements governing responsibility over public debt gradually emerged from, and why. By bringing in the historical dimension and the trial-and-error process that took place over more than two centuries, they help us understand the logic behind alternative arrangements and why the current one has in the end prevailed.

Their careful historical account yields several important lessons. It first recalls that the US system as we know it, with its combination of a large federal budget responsible for the bulk of public debt and limited thrifty state budgets subject to balanced budget rules, emerged gradually from a sequence of events; in fact the initial set-up, as designed and enforced by Alexander Hamilton, was almost exactly the opposite.

Second, it makes clear that beyond economic principles, attitudes towards what was in the aftermath of independence called the ‘assumption’ of state debt were shaped by broader political considerations – not least the aim of building a genuine federal government.

Third, it explains how after the US was firmly established as a federation, changing political conditions led to a reversal of the federal government’s stance and to the enforcement of a ‘no bail-out’ principle.

An intriguing feature of US history is therefore that the competences and features of federal government grew out of its assumption of state debt, and that the centre imposed a de-facto no bail-out regime only after having assumed essential powers.

Another interesting observation by Henning and Kessler is that balanced budget rules were adopted spontaneously by states in response to financial stress and defaults, rather than as a disciplinary device mandated by the centre. Thus, there is still significant variability between states regarding the modus operandi and strictness of budget rules. The question remains if what matters is the strictness of the rule, or deeper political preferences at state level, of which the rule is only an expression.

Finally, Henning and Kessler emphasise, a no less important lesson for Europe is that policy principles and institutions should be looked at as a system rather than in isolation. As the authors point out, it may seem obvious to recall that states in the US can abide by strict budget balance
rules to the extent the federal government is responsible for stabilisation and the bail-out of insolvent banks, but this simple lesson is sometimes overlooked in European discussion.

Jean Pisani-Ferry

Director of Bruegel


Warning: Invalid argument supplied for foreach() in /home/bruegelo/public_html/wp-content/themes/bruegel/content.php on line 449
View comments
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

An irrational choice: behavioural economist wins Nobel Prize

Richard Thaler was awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to the field of behavioural economics. His work documents a set of cognitive biases affecting economic decision-making and casts doubt on commonly-held assumptions about the rational ‘homo economicus’ that inhabits economic models and theories. What are the implications for the economics discipline and public policy?

By: Konstantinos Efstathiou Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 16, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

On the cost of gun ownership

On 1 October 2017, 59 people were killed and another 489 injured in what is currently the deadliest mass shooting in US modern history. The author reviews recent contributions on the economic cost of gun violence, as well as the impact of regulation.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 11, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

EU - CELAC Economic Forum - Channels for a joint future

On 11 October Bruegel together with GIGA and Real Instituto Elcano will organise a conference on relations between the EU and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.

Speakers: Paola Amadei, Angel Badillo, Paulo Carreño King, Linda Corugedo Steneberg, Gonzalo de Castro, Gonzalo Gutiérrez, Bert Hoffmann, Edita Hrdá, Ramón Jáuregui, Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, Eduardo Levy Yeyati, Gabriel Lopez, Enrique Medina Malo, Maryleana Méndez Jiménez, Luicy Pedroza, Mario Pezzini, Mario Soares, Everton Vargas, Dylan Vernon and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: October 11, 2017
Read article

Blog Post

India’s trade ties with the UK and EU

As EU and Indian leaders meet in Delhi, we look at the figures on trade. The UK’s place in the relationship warrants special attention. EU-India trade has more than tripled since 2000, but UK-India trade is largely static. The shift is especially noticeable for EU exports to India, where the UK share has dropped from 29% to 10%.

By: Maria Demertzis and Alexander Roth Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Global Economics & Governance Date: October 6, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Long-term growth potential, or dead in the long run?

By linking growth with both employment and the imperative for India to hold its own with China for strategic autonomy, Prime Minister Modi has brought sustainable, high quality, inclusive economic growth to the centre of political discussion, which is where it rightfully belongs.

By: Suman Bery Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 5, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The Economics of Healthcare

Healthcare reform has been a thorn in the side of the US administration for several months, prompting President Trump to declare that “Nobody knew that healthcare could be so complicated.” We review recent economists’ views on the issue.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: October 2, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Europe and Japan: Monetary policies in the age of uncertainty

The 5th Bruegel - Graduate School of Economics, Kobe University conference will focus on monetary policy.

Speakers: Kosuke Aoki, Ulrich Bindseil, Grégory Claeys, Zsolt Darvas, Ester Faia, Lex Hoogduin, Martin Hellwig, Miles Kimball, Eric Lonergan, Benoît Mojon, Tamotsu Nakamura, Marianne Nessén, Athanasios Orphanides, Wataru Takahashi, Tokiko Shimizu and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: October 2, 2017
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Employment in Europe and the US: the EU’s remarkable strength

The common narrative that the US labour market outperforms the EU is not as trustworthy as overall unemployment figures imply. There is a complex interaction between job creation, labour force participation and unemployment. Jobseekers leaving the labour market altogether was an important factor behind the reduction in US unemployment, while Europe’s job growth has been accompanied by increased labour force participation.

By: Zsolt Darvas and David Pichler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 28, 2017
Read about event

Past Event

Past Event

Unfinished business: The unexplored causes of the financial crisis and the lessons yet to be learned

At this event Tamim Bayoumi will present his upcoming book on the financial crisis, showing how the Euro crisis and U.S. housing crash were, in fact, parasitically intertwined.

Speakers: Tamim Bayoumi, Maria Demertzis and Aerdt Houben Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: September 28, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Chinese banks: An endless cat and mouse game benefitting large players

As deleveraging moves up in the scale of objectives of the Chinese leadership, banks now face more restrictions from regulators. As a result, banks have been very creative in playing the cat and mouse game in front of evolving regulations.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 26, 2017
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Global Excess Imbalances: How worried should we be?

This event will discuss excess external imbalances, risks from current configuration of imbalances, and potential policy responses to help correct imbalances while supporting global growth.

Speakers: Gustavo Adler, Zsolt Darvas, Maria Demertzis and Luis Cubeddu Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: September 26, 2017
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The Fed’s Unwinding

The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) held short-term interest rates steady on September 20th and announced that starting from October 2017 the Fed will gradually shrink its balance sheet, which grew considerably in response to the Great Recession. We review economists’ views on this move.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: September 25, 2017
Load more posts