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

Blog Post

India in 2024: Narendra Modi once more, but to what end?

Even with the recent economic slowdown, India still boasts Asia’s fastest growing economy in 2018. But beneath the veneer of impressive GDP expansion, uneasiness about India’s economic model clearly tempers enthusiasm.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Trinh Nguyen Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 17, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Jun
11
08:30

EU-LAC Economic Forum 2019: New perspectives in turbulent times

The third edition of the EU-LAC Economic Forum.

Speakers: Diego Acosta Arcarazo, Ignacio Corlazzoli, Maria Demertzis, Alicia García-Herrero, Carmen González Enríquez, Bert Hoffmann, Edita Hrdá, Matthias Jorgensen, Juan Jung, Tobias Lenz, Carlos Malamud, J. Scott Marcus, Elena Pisonero, Charles Powell, Belén Romana, Andrés Velasco and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article Download PDF More by this author

Book/Special report

Bruegel annual report 2018

The Bruegel annual report provides a broad overview of the organisation's work in the previous year.

By: Bruegel Topic: Energy & Climate, European Macroeconomics & Governance, Finance & Financial Regulation, Global Economics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Date: May 16, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

What is in store for the EU’s trade relationship with the US ?

If faced with a resurgent President Trump after the next US election, the EU will have some difficult decisions to make as it is compelled to enter a one-sided negotiation. Failure to strike a deal will imperil the world’s largest trade relationship and contribute to the progressive unravelling of the rules enshrined in the World Trade Organization – although the changes required of Europe by Trump’s demands may ultimately turn out to be in the interest of Europeans.

By: Uri Dadush Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 16, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Director's Cut: Evolution of US-China relations amid trade-tariff conflict

Bruegel director Guntram Wolff and Bruegel fellow Uri Dadush welcome William Alan Reinsch, senior adviser and Scholl chair in international business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for a discussion of how China-US relations are developing in the context of unfolding trade war.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 14, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Implications of the escalating China-US trade dispute

If allowed to escalate, the trade dispute between China and the United States will significantly increase the likelihood of a global protectionist surge and a collapse in the rules-based international trading system. Here the author assesses the specific impacts on the Chinese and US economies, as well as the strategic problems this dispute poses for Europe.

By: Uri Dadush Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 14, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

External Publication

Global interpersonal income inequality decline: The role of China and India

Without China and India, global interpersonal income inequality in 143 countries was higher in 2015than in 1988. Has the rest of the world really become more equal?

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 14, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Jun
21
12:30

Financial inclusion of SMEs in the Middle East and Central Asia

How can increased access to finance benefit SMEs in the Middle East and Central Asia? What reforms are needed to encourage SME financial inclusion?

Speakers: Anta Ndoye and Jihad Azour Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

Will China’s trade war with the US end like that of Japan in the 1980s?

The outcome of the US-China trade war is anticipated to be quite different from the experience of Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, due to China’s relatively lower dependence on the US and having learned from the Japanese experience.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Kohei Iwahara Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 13, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Deep Focus: Reforming and rejuvenating Russia’s economy

Bruegel fellow Marek Dabrowski talks to Sean Gibson about the underlying causes of Russia's slow emergence from economic crisis, in an episode of the Deep Focus podcast series.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 9, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Trade war: Is the U.S. panicking due to China's big hedge?

U.S.-China trade war has suddenly taken centre stage following Donald Trump’s unexpected announcement to ramp up tariffs if no deal is reached. U.S. is in desperate need for a comprehensive victory, and China is ready to make concessions, but not to the extent of transforming its state-led economic model into a market-based economy.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 9, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

External Publication

Can emerging markets be a source of global troubles again?

According to popular perception, emerging-market economies have not experienced serious macroeconomic and financial turbulence since the beginning of this century. This perception was not entirely correct because it disregarded spill-over effects of the global financial crises of 2008–2009, the consequences of the decline of oil and other commodity prices in 2014–2016, economic and financial troubles caused by violent conflicts and regional political instability.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: May 9, 2019
Load more posts