The political economy of fiscal reform in Brazil: the rationale for the suboptimal equilibrium

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This project examines fiscal reforms in Brazil since the 90s, focusing on the varying reform outcomes in the area of taxation, budgeting, and fiscal federalism. While there has been an extensive reorganization of fiscal federalism in the country since the mid- 1990s, much less change can be observed in the area of taxation. The federal government has managed to recentralize fiscal authority in the country, curbing the autonomy of the states by resorting to numerical rules. By contrast, while expanding massively the extractive capacity of the Brazilian state, policy-makers choose not to revamp the tax system, and to keep an inefficient system that has been capable to generate high levels of revenue. In the area of budgeting, several changes were implemented and the federal executive has been able to strengthen its control over the budget process. The economic crises in the mid-1990s created contrasting incentives to reform. While the crises episodes prompted the government to rein in subnational fiscal imbalances and ultimately to enact the Fiscal Responsibility Law, they discouraged policy-makers from introducing major changes in the tax system. This status quo bias is associated with differences in risk aversion across the issue areas but also with the incentives in the country’s policy-making process. We argue that the executive derives utility from fiscal stability and inflation control because of electoral incentives and of credibility gains in international markets. This endogenous perspective allows us to understand fiscal and tax reform initiatives as generating political benefits for incumbent politicians. However, fiscal stability was attained at the cost of systemic inefficiency associated with highly regressive and distortionary taxes.

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