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

Opinion

La lunga marcia della Cina sui porti europei

I porti sono una risorsa vitale per l'economia europea: oltre il 70% delle merci che attraversano le frontiere europee viaggiano via mare. L'anno scorso, il presidente della Commissione europea ha proposto di istituire un nuovo meccanismo europeo per la verifica degli investimenti esteri diretti tra le crescenti preoccupazioni sull'acquisizione di infrastrutture europee e attività ritenute strategiche dall'estero. Alla luce di questi sviluppi, riteniamo che sia utile concentrarsi sul crescente coinvolgimento della Cina nel sistema portuale europeo.

By: Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 20, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

World Cup Economics

As we approach the final rounds of the tournament, here are some recent contributions about the economics and economic impact of the World Cup.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 9, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Ubu ou Machiavel?

L'administration Trump veut imposer une approche transactionnelle des relations économiques gouvernée par le rapport de force bilatéral en lieu et place du contrat multilatéral. Un défi d'une ampleur inédite pour l'Europe.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 6, 2018
Read about event

Upcoming Event

Sep
3-4
08:30

Bruegel Annual Meetings 2018

The 2018 Annual Meetings will be held on 3-4 September and will feature sessions on European and global economic governance, as well as finance, energy and innovation.

Speakers: Maria Åsenius, Richard E. Baldwin, Carl Bildt, Nadia Calviño, Maria Demertzis, Mariya Gabriel, Péter Kaderják, Joanne Kellermann, Jörg Kukies, Emmanuel Lagarrigue, Philippe Lespinard, Montserrat Mir Roca, Dominique Moïsi, Jean Pierre Mustier, Ana Palacio, Jean Pisani-Ferry, Lucrezia Reichlin, Norbert Röttgen, André Sapir, Jean-Claude Trichet, Johan Van Overtveldt, Margrethe Vestager, Reinhilde Veugelers, Thomas Wieser, Guntram B. Wolff and Georg Zachmann Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Location: Brussels Comic Strip Museum, Rue des Sables 20, 1000 Brussels
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Ukraine: The struggle for reforms continues

The modernisation of the Ukrainian economy and state continues to develop at an unsatisfactory pace due to a lack of pro-reform political consensus. The two upcoming election campaigns in 2019 (presidential and parliamentary) make the reform process even slower and additionally put its effectiveness and sustainability under risk. The international community has a limited toolkit to overcome this stalemate.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 4, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Can Multilateralism Adapt?

Global governance requires rules, because flexibility and goodwill alone cannot tackle the hardest shared problems. With multilateralism under attack, the narrow path ahead is to determine, on a case-by-case basis, the minimum requirements of effective collective action, and to forge agreement on reforms that fulfill these conditions.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 3, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

US tariffs and China's holding of Treasuries

China has the biggest bilateral trade surplus vis-à-vis the US but is also a top holder of US government bonds. While China has started to counteract US trade tariffs, economists have been discussing the case of China acting on its holdings of US Treasuries. We review recent contributions.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: July 2, 2018
Read article

Blog Post

Trading invisibles: Exposure of countries to GDPR

This blog post identifies provisions of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that affect foreign companies, and discusses implications for trade in services with the EU. The authors provide a novel mapping of countries’ relative exposure to these regulations by a) measuring the digital maturity of their service exports to the EU; and b) the share of these exports in national GDP.

By: Sonali Chowdhry and Nicolas Moës Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Global Economics & Governance Date: June 28, 2018
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Trade war trinity: analysis of global consequences

Analysis of the long-term impact of the trade war and its three key players: EU, US, and China.

Speakers: Alicia García-Herrero, Ignasi Guardans and Carl B Hamilton Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 28, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

China’s strategic investments in Europe: The case of maritime ports

The EU is currently working on a new framework for screening foreign direct investments (FDI). Maritime ports represent the cornerstone of the EU trade infrastructure, as 70% of goods crossing European borders travel by sea. This blog post seeks to inform this debate by looking at recent Chinese involvement in EU ports.

By: Shivali Pandya and Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: June 27, 2018
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

EU-LAC Economic Forum 2018

The second edition of the EU-LAC Economic Forum, a high level gathering for in-depth research-based exchanges on economic issues between European, Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) policy makers and experts.

Speakers: Angel Badillo, Federico Bonaglia, Maria Demertzis, Sylvie Durán, Guillermo Fernández de Soto, Alicia García-Herrero, Elisa Grafulla, Gonzalo Gutiérrez, Bert Hoffmann, Juan Jung, Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, Carlos Malamud, J. Scott Marcus, Neven Mimica, Fabio Nasarre de Letosa, Detlef Nolte, Anne Sperschneider and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: June 26, 2018
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Oct
3
09:00

International trade and the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement

This event; jointly organised by Bruegel and the Graduate School of Economics, Kobe University, will discuss the EU-Japan trade deal and asses its impact.

Speakers: Marco Chirullo, Gabriel Felbermayr, François Godement, Hiroo Inoue, Sébastien Jean, Yoichi Matsubayashi, Tamotsu Nakamura, André Sapir, Cécile Toubeau, Agata Wierzbowska and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Load more posts