Debt Bailouts and Constitutions
Kohlscheen, Emanuel, Economic Inquiry
A number of countries have undergone several rounds of bailouts of subnational government debts in the last decade. The Brazilian government, for instance, assumed the debts of the federated states in 1989, 1993, and 1997. Also in its southern neighbor, Argentina, the line that separates provincial and federal budgets has become blurred a number of times. Seven Argentine provinces were granted a debt bailout between 1992 and 1994, and the central government took over deficit-ridden public pension funds of 11 provinces between 1994 and 1996. Bailout operations also occurred in 1995 and 2001. Such operations are not always explicit, however, and in some instances, hyperinflation may have been the ultimate bailout that eroded debt stocks. (1,2) While bailouts of subnational entities could certainly be efficient ex post, the above-mentioned recurrence of episodes could eventually undermine efforts of the center to achieve fiscal discipline.
In an attempt to strengthen the credibility of budget separations between the different tiers of government, several countries have changed the institutional setting for subnational borrowing in the last years. After the financial meltdown at the end of 2001, Argentina's Congress approved a law containing a commitment to the creation of a federal fiscal body and coordination mechanisms for provincial indebtness. (3) Brazil and Mexico have enacted legislation containing explicit no-bailout provisions. For instance, Brazil's Lei de Responsabilidade Fiscal, enacted in 2000, precludes any further credit operation between units of the federation. Brazilian states are now required to submit new bond issuances to the sequential approval of the Ministry of Finance and the Senate. Golden rule limits of indebtness for states and municipalities were also defined. (4)
This paper explores the interrelation between bailouts of subnational governments and Constitutional tax revenue sharing arrangements. It argues that revenue sharing mechanisms, which are typically engraved into Constitutions, might change incentives for demand-driven bailouts and possibly widen political support for bailout to units that a priori may have little to gain from the direct transfer of debt. A subnational debt bailout implies that, unless the federal government has the flexibility and willingness to cut back on its expenditures to fully absorb the cost, taxation is shifted from the state to the national level. When the Constitution mandates that a fraction of federal revenues be automatically distributed to the states, federal revenues must be increased by more than the stock of debts shifted to the Union. These excess revenues accrue to member states according to the formula set in the Constitution acting as side payments conditioned on a bailout being approved. As transfers are a direct function of federal revenues, states with low debts--that would naturally oppose a shift of the repayment burden of subnational sovereign debt to the central government--might not do so, as this shift ultimately increases their source of income. Hence, in the presence of federal revenue sharing, a debt/gross domestic product (GDP) distribution that is skewed to the right is no longer a sine qua non condition for a bailout to be supported by a majority of states. The reason a bailout occurs then is not driven by an externality arising from financial market interdependencies, as in the model of Inman (2003), but from the fact that the failure to bail out indebted states generates a negative externality on states that are net recipients of the revenue sharing arrangement. Politicians of remote states that have constituencies which rely heavily on transfers of a predetermined share of federal revenues will probably not oppose measures that ultimately "increase the size of the pot." Therefore, policies and institutional arrangements aimed at reducing regional income disparities should be carefully designed so as to not soften perceived budget constraints.
The implications of the model go well beyond Latin American federations. Rodden (2003a) gives an account of the failed attempt of a group of U.S. states to shift its debts to the central government in the early 1840s. He concludes that "one of the best explanations for the defeat of the assumption movement may simply be in the numbers--the majority of states did not have large debts, and outside of Maryland and Pennsylvania, most of the debtor states had small populations." With no Constitutional revenue sharing mechanism in place, the interested parties may have found themselves unable to set up the sizable compensations to less indebted states that would have been needed to make the proposal politically feasible (for a detailed discussion of the episode, see Wibbels 2003). The issue should also be of interest to European policymakers seeking to set up an institutional arrangement that makes the no-bailout provision in the Constitution of the European Central Bank time consistent.
A. Relation to the Literature
This study relates to a growing body of literature that links fiscal institutions to fiscal performance. An interesting set of such studies can be found in Poterba and von Hagen (1999). However, the formal treatments have chosen to treat the bailout issue as being separate from revenue sharing arrangements. This is hardly surprising given that in most Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, the rules for national revenue sharing are sufficiently complex on their own. I shall refer to each strand of the literature in turn.
The literature on soft budget constraints has developed drawing heavily on experiences of (formerly) centrally planned economies. A comprehensive survey of this literature can be found in Kornai, Maskin, and Roland (2003). Within this strand, Qian and Roland (1998) studied the problem of bailouts in a federation with three types of agents: entrepreneurs, local governments, and the central government. Their model highlights the role of fiscal competition among subnational governments in hardening budget constraints for entrepreneurs. An accommodating central government controlling monetary policy may react to the strategic underprovision of public goods by local governments with money creation and distribution of seigniorage. In their model, however, a bailout is extended by the central government even if n - 1 federation units would lose from it. The political incentives for providing a bailout are not considered.
Another strand of the literature has analyzed interregional transfers in federations. Boadway and Flatters (1982) provide an early discussion of the equity and efficiency aspects of a tax equalization system. Even though in many countries equity considerations are probably the primary motivation for revenue sharing, most of the literature stresses its potential for efficiency gains via risk sharing (see Aronsson and Wikstrom 2003; Bucovetsky 1998; Persson and Tabellini 1996a). However, as Persson and Tabellini (1996b) point out, risk sharing may not be perfectly separable from redistributive aspects if fiscal instruments are limited. (5)
The aim of this study is to explore the intersection of these two strands. Specifically, the study looks at the bailout problem in an economy with federal tax revenue sharing, finding that the mechanism may affect the outcome in important ways. The effects of federal revenue sharing on borrowing are analyzed in the absence of a credible no-bailout commitment and in the credibility of such a pledge itself. The credibility is endogenously conditioned by the demand for such action among federation units. An application of the theory to the institutional setup of the Brazilian Federation is then analyzed. It is shown that the revenue sharing mechanism engraved in the 1988 Constitution provided the conditions for the successive approvals of generalized debt bailouts in the Federal Senate.
Section II presents a model where even …
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Publication information: Article title: Debt Bailouts and Constitutions. Contributors: Kohlscheen, Emanuel - Author. Journal title: Economic Inquiry. Volume: 46. Issue: 3 Publication date: July 2008. Page number: 480+. © 2003 Western Economic Association International. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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