Structural reforms in a difficult time


By Naomitsu Yashiro,
Structural Surveillance Division, OECD Economics Department

The pace of structural reforms is slowing just when the world economy needs decisive policy actions to strengthen fundamentals and restore healthy growth (the 2016 Going for Growth report). Policy makers may be concerned that introducing structural reforms in the current context involve trade-offs between the mid- to long-run gains in employment and productivity and short-run losses.

In our recent paper (Caldera Sánchez, de Serres and Yashiro, 2016), we note that when the economy is near its potential, and confidence among consumers and investors is high, gains from growth-enhancing reforms have been found to exceed potential losses even in the short run, as demand increases on the anticipation of the future benefits. However, the short-term impact of reforms may be less favourable when they are introduced in difficult macroeconomic conditions, as several factors may prevent a pick-up in demand. In some circumstances, specific reforms may even entail short-term reductions in demand.

There are several conflicting channels through which reforms affect the real economy. The strength of the channel can change under different macroeconomic conditions. Take reforms of unemployment benefits that aim to improve work incentives by strengthening the conditionality of income support in the case of a lay-off on intensive job-search efforts. By facilitating the return to work, such reforms raise employment, household income and thus consumption. However, uncertainty regarding disposable income also increases, potentially discouraging consumption. In good times, employment gains can be quick, so that output increases within 2-3 years after reforms. But during recessions when the unemployed are less likely to find jobs the gains in employment can even turn negative (See figure).

The gains in employment of an unemployment benefit reform
can turn negative during a downturn

Reforming in a difficult macro context

Note: The lower (upper) line corresponds to the impact of the reduction in the initial unemployment benefit replacement rate during economic downturn (upturn), where the economic cycle is measured through the level of the pre-reform unemployment gap (i.e. the difference between the structural unemployment rate and the unemployment rate). The economic downturn (upturn) corresponds to the case where unemployment gap is set to the minimum (maximum) value within the sample.
Source: Bouis et al. (2012).

Other reforms that seek to restore competitiveness through lower relative costs and prices can also depress demand if conducted during downturns. This is because in bad times labour and goods demand respond little to the lower wages and product prices resulting from reforms, while workers or firms see their income and profit eroded in the short term. Ideally, governments can deploy expansionary fiscal policies or monetary policies to support demand. But, in some cases, macro policies may also be constrained, as has been the case for several countries in the past few years. Strong external demand can help to bring forward the benefits of reforms as well. For instance, our review of case studies suggests that Canada’s labour market reforms around the mid-1990s benefited from strong demand from the United States. This supported the gains in employment following the reforms.

Even under limited supports from fiscal and monetary policies or external demand, a smart packaging or sequencing of reforms can alleviate the negative short-run impacts on demand: (1) reforms of labour and product markets can be conducted in tandem, so that the lower prices from stronger competition limit the impact of labour market reforms on real wages; (2) addressing dysfunctions in the financial sector as early as possible can improve access to credit and allow households and firms to capitalise on the future benefits of reforms and expand consumption and investment today; (3) reducing policy uncertainty through well-communicated, credible reform strategies can prevent the deterioration of confidence among business and consumers.

Many reforms can boost demand by themselves even during difficult macroeconomic conditions. For instance, measures aimed at raising investment in knowledge-based capital, including through infrastructure spending, as well as tax structure reforms can bring short benefits. Also, reducing regulatory barriers to entry in services sectors with large pent-up demand and relatively low entry costs (like professional services or taxis) can boost business expansion and employment relatively quickly. Similarly, reducing barriers to geographic or jobs mobility can increase the speed of employment gains in difficult times. Strengthening active labour market policies and to alleviate skill shortages and mismatch can unleash business activities that were previously constrained by skills bottlenecks. Reforms that contribute to the long-term sustainability of public finance and to the cost-effectiveness of healthcare or pension systems can reduce uncertainties on household’s future income, thereby boosting consumption today.


Caldera Sánchez, A., A. de Serres and N. Yashiro (2016), “Reforming in a difficult macroeconomic context: A review of the issues and recent literature”, OECD Economics Department Working Papers, No. 1297, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD.  (2016), Economic Policy Reforms 2016: Going for Growth Interim Report, OECD Publishing, Paris.

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