Public Finance and Soft Budgets
- Rosella LevaggiRosella LevaggiDepartment of Economics and Management, University of Brescia
The concept of soft budget constraint, describes a situation where a decision-maker finds it impossible to keep an agent to a fixed budget. In healthcare it may refer to a (nonprofit) hospital that overspends, or to a lower government level that does not balance its accounts. The existence of a soft budget constraint may represent an optimal policy from the regulator point of view only in specific settings. In general, its presence may allow for strategic behavior that changes considerably its nature and its desirability. In this article, soft budget constraint will be analyzed along two lines: from a market perspective and from a fiscal federalism perspective.
The creation of an internal market for healthcare has made hospitals with different objectives and constraints compete together. The literature does not agree on the effects of competition on healthcare or on which type of organizations should compete. Public hospitals are often seen as less efficient providers, but they are also intrinsically motivated and/or altruistic. Competition for quality in a market where costs are sunk and competitors have asymmetric objectives may produce regulatory failures; for this reason, it might be optimal to implement soft budget constraint rules to public hospitals even at the risk of perverse effects. Several authors have attempted to estimate the presence of soft budget constraint, showing that they derive from different strategic behaviors and lead to quite different outcomes.
The reforms that have reshaped public healthcare systems across Europe have often been accompanied by a process of devolution; in some countries it has often been accompanied by widespread soft budget constraint policies. Medicaid expenditure in the United States is becoming a serious concern for the Federal Government and the evidence from other states is not reassuring. Several explanations have been proposed: (a) local governments may use spillovers to induce neighbors to pay for their local public goods; (b) size matters: if the local authority is sufficiently big, the center will bail it out; equalization grants and fiscal competition may be responsible for the rise of soft budget constraint policies. Soft budget policies may also derive from strategic agreements among lower tiers, or as a consequence of fiscal imbalances. In this context the optimal use of soft budget constraint as a policy instrument may not be desirable.