Fiscal Risk and the Portfolio of Government Programs

by Samuel G. Hanson, David S. Scharfstein, and Adi Sunderam

Overview — In modern economies, a large fraction of economy-wide risk is borne indirectly by taxpayers via the government. Governments have liabilities associated with retirement benefits, social insurance programs, and financial system backstops. Given the magnitude of these exposures, the set of risks the government chooses to bear and the way it manages those risks is of great importance. This study develops a new model for government cost-benefit analysis, and shows that distortionary taxation impacts the optimal scale and pricing of government programs. It also highlights the interaction between social and fiscal risk management motives, which frequently come into conflict.

Author Abstract

In this paper, we develop a new model for government cost-benefit analysis in the presence of risk. In our model, a benevolent government chooses the scale of a risky project in the presence of two key frictions. First, there are market failures, which cause the government to perceive project payoffs differently than private households do. This gives the government a "social risk management" motive: projects that ameliorate market failures when household marginal utility is high are appealing. The second friction is that government financing is costly because of tax distortions. This creates a "fiscal risk management" motive: incremental spending that occurs when total government spending is already high is particularly unattractive. A first key insight is that the government's need to manage fiscal risk frequently limits its capacity for managing social risk. A second key insight is that fiscal risk and social risk interact in complex ways. When considering many potential projects, government cost-benefit analysis thus acquires the flavor of a portfolio choice problem. We use the model to explore how the relative attractiveness of two technologies for promoting financial stability—bailouts and regulation—varies with the government's fiscal burden and characteristics of the economy.

Paper Information

  • Full Working Paper Text
  • Working Paper Publication Date: October 20126
  • HBS Working Paper Number: NBER Working Paper Series, No. 22763
  • Faculty Unit(s): Finance