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Posts Tagged ‘forecasting’

The effects of Scottish independence: a question of known unknowns?

Economic journalists, commentators and politicians have been examining the possible economic effects of a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum on 18 September. For an economist, there are two main categories of difficulty in examining the consequences. The first is the positive question of what precisely will be the consequences. The second is the normative question of whether the likely effects will be desirable or undesirable and how much so.

The first question is largely one of ‘known unknowns’. This rather strange term was used in 2002 by Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, in the context of intelligence about Iraq. The problem is a general one about forecasting the future. We may know the types of thing that are likely happen, but the magnitude of the outcome cannot be precisely known because there are so many unknowable things that can influence it.

Here are some known issues of Scottish independence, but with unknown consequences (at least in precisely quantifiable terms). The list is certainly not exhaustive and you could probably add more questions yourself to the list.

Will independence result in lower or higher economic growth in the short and long term?
Will there be a currency union, with Scotland and the rest of the UK sharing the pound and a central bank? Or will Scotland merely use the pound outside a currency union? Would it prefer to have its own currency or join the euro over the longer term?
What will happen to the sterling exchange rate with the dollar, the euro and various other countries?
How will businesses react? Will independence encourage greater inward investment in Scotland or will there be a net capital outflow? And either way, what will be the magnitude of the effect?
How will assets, such as oil, be shared between Scotland and the rest of the UK? And how will national debt be apportioned?
How big will the transition costs be of moving to an independent Scotland?
How will independence impact on Scottish trade (a) with countries outside the UK and (b) with the rest of the UK?
What will happen about Scotland’s membership of the EU? Will other EU countries, such as Spain (because of its concerns about independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque country), attempt to block Scotland remaining in or rejoining the EU?
What will happen to tax rates in Scotland, with the new Scottish government free to set its own tax rates?
What will be the consequences for Scottish pensions and the Scottish pensions industry?
What will happen to the distribution of income in Scotland? How might Scottish governments behave in terms of income redistribution and what will be its consequences on output and growth?

Of course, just because the effects cannot be known with certainty, attempts are constantly being made to quantify the outcomes in the light of the best information available at the time. These are refined as circumstances change and newer data become available.

But forecasts also depend on the assumptions made about the post-referendum decisions of politicians in Scotland, the rest of the UK and in major trading partner countries. It also depends on assumptions about the reactions of businesses. Not surprisingly, both sides of the debate make assumptions favourable to their own case.

Then there is the second category of question. Even if you could quantify the effects, just how desirable would they be? The issue here is one of the weightings given to the various costs and benefits. How would you weight distributional consequences, given that some people will gain or lose more than others? What social discount rate would you apply to future costs and benefits?

Then there are the normative and largely unquantifiable costs and benefits. How would you assess the desirability of political consequences, such as greater independence in decision-making or the break-up of a union dating back over 300 years? But these questions about nationhood are crucial issues for many of the voters.

Articles
Scottish Independence would have Broad Impact on UK Economy NBC News, Catherine Boyle (9/9/14)
Scottish independence: the economic implications The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/9/14)
Scottish vote: Experts warn of potential economic impact BBC News, Matthew Wall (9/9/14)
The economics of Scottish independence: A messy divorce The Economist (21/2/14)
Dispute over economic impact of Scottish independence Financial Times, Mure Dickie, Jonathan Guthrie and John Aglionby (28/5/14)
10 economic benefits for a wealthier independent Scotland Michael Gray (6/3/14)
Scottish independence, UK dependency New Economics Foundation (NEF), James Meadway (4/9/14)
Scottish Jobs and the World Economy Scottish Economy Watch, Brian Ashcroft (25/8/14)
Scottish yes vote: what happens to the pound in your pocket? Channel 4 News (9/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/9/14)
What price Scottish independence? BBC News, Robert Peston (7/9/14)

Books and Reports
The Economic Consequences of Scottish Independence Scottish Economic Society and Helmut Schmidt Universität, David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann (eds) (August 2014)
The potential implications of independence for businesses in Scotland Oxford Economics, Weir (April 2014)

Questions

  1. What is a currency union? What implications would there be for Scotland being in a currency union with the rest of the UK?
  2. If you could measure the effects of independence over the next ten years, would you treat £1m of benefits or costs occurring in ten years’ time the same as £1m of benefits and costs occurring next year? Explain.
  3. Is it inevitable that events occurring in the future will at best be known unknowns?
  4. If you make a statement that something will occur in the future and you turn out to be wrong, was your statement a positive one or a normative one?
  5. What would be the likely effects of Scottish independence on the current account of the balance of payments (a) for Scotland; (b) for the rest if the UK?
  6. How does inequality in Scotland compare with that in the rest of the UK and in other countries? Why might Scottish independence lead to a reduction in inequality? (See the chapter on inequality in the book above edited by David Bell, David Eiser and Klaus B Beckmann.)
  7. One of the problems in assessing the arguments for a Yes vote is uncertainty over what would happen if there was a majority voting No. What might happen in terms of further devolution in the case of a No vote?
  8. Why is there uncertainty over the amount of national debt that would exist in Scotland if it became independent?
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Cause for optimism?

The IMF has just published its 6-monthly World Economic Outlook report. The report is moderately optimistic, arguing that ‘global activity has broadly strengthened and is expected to improve further in 2014–15′. World growth is expected to rise from 3.0% in 2013 to 3.6% in 2014 and 3.9% in 2015,

Much of the impetus for an acceleration in growth is expected to come from advanced countries. Growth in these countries is expected to average 2¼% in 2014–15, a rise of 1 percentage point compared with 2013. Part of the reason is that these countries still have large output gaps and thus have considerable scope to respond to rises in aggregate demand.

Monetary policy in advanced countries remains accommodative, although the USA has begun to taper off its quantitative easing programme. It is possible, however, that the ECB may make its monetary policy more accommodative, with signs that it might embark on quantitative easing if eurozone growth remains weak and if the risks of deflation rise. If the average price level in the eurozone does fall, this could dampen demand as consumers defer consumption until prices have fallen.

As far as emerging economies are concerned, growth is projected to ‘pick up gradually from 4.7 percent in 2013 to about 5 percent in 2014 and 5¼% in 2015′. Although predicted growth is higher in emerging countries than in advanced countries, its acceleration is less, and much of the predicted growth is dependent on rising export sales to the advanced countries.

Global growth, however, is still fragile. Emerging market economies are vulnerable to a slowing or even reversal of monetary flows from the USA as its quantitative easing programme winds down. Advanced countries are vulnerable to deflationary risks. ‘The result [of deflation] would be higher real interest rates, an increase in private and public debt burdens, and weaker demand and output.’

The UK is predicted to have the strongest growth (2.9%) of the G7 countries in 2014 (see above chart). But the IMF cautions about being too optimistic:

Growth has rebounded more strongly than anticipated in the United Kingdom on easier credit conditions and increased confidence. However, the recovery has been unbalanced, with business investment and exports still disappointing.

Articles
IMF: World economy stronger; recovery uneven USA Today, Paul Davidson (8/4/14)
Emerging markets feel the pressure The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (8/4/14)
IMF cuts downturn danger to near zero Financial Times, Chris Giles (8/4/14)
IMF warns eurozone and ECB on deflation threat RTE News (8/4/14)
Recovery strong but risk shifts to emerging markets: IMF CNBC, Kiran Moodley (8/4/14)
IMF: World economy is stronger but faces threats Bloomberg Businessweek, Christopher S. Rugaber (8/4/14)
IMF: UK economic growth to reach 2.9% in 2014 BBC News (8/4/14)
IMF: UK economic growth to reach 2.9% in 2014 BBC News, Hugh Pym (8/4/14)
Five signs that the global economic recovery may be an illusion The Guardian, Larry Elliott (6/4/14)

Report and data
World Economic Outlook (WEO) International Monetary Fund (8/4/14)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (8/4/14)

Questions

  1. Why does the IMF expect the world economy to grow more strongly in 2014 and 2015 than in 2013?
  2. What are the greatest risks to economic growth for (a) advanced countries; (b) developing countries?
  3. What geo-political events could negatively affect economic growth in (a) the eurozone; (b) the global economy?
  4. In what ways is the UK’s economic growth unbalanced?
  5. How much credence should be given to economic forecasts?
  6. Should countries’ economic performance be judged primarily by their growth in GDP?
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Taking an annual gaze into the crystal ball

As the old year gives way to the new, papers have been full of economic forecasts for the coming year. This year is no exception. The authors of the articles below give their predictions of what is to come for the global economy and, for the most part, their forecasts are relatively optimistic – but not entirely so. Despite a sunny outlook, there are various dark clouds on the horizon.

Most forecasters predict a higher rate of global economic growth in 2014 than in 2013 – and higher still in 2015. The IMF, in its October forecasts, predicted global growth of 3.6% in 2014 (up from 2.9% in 2013) and 4.0% in 2015.

Some countries will do much better than others, however. The USA, the UK, Germany and certain developing countries are forecast to grow more strongly. The eurozone as a whole, however, is likely to see little in the way of growth, as countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy continue with austerity policies in an attempt to reduce their debt. Chinese growth has slowed, as the government seeks to rebalance the economy away from exports and investment in manufacturing towards consumption, and services in particular. It is still forecast to be 7.3% in 2014, however – well above the global average. Japanese growth has picked up in response to the three arrows of fiscal, monetary and supply-side policy. But this could well fade somewhat as the stimulus slows. The table shows IMF growth forecasts for selected countries and groups of countries to 2018.

Much will depend on what happens to monetary policy around the world. How quickly will monetary stimulus taper in the USA and in Japan? Will the ECB introduce more aggressively expansionary monetary policy? When will the Bank of England start raising interest rates?

Growth within countries is generally favouring those on higher incomes, with the gap between rich and poor set to continue widening over the coming years. The pay of top earners has continued to rise considerably faster than prices, while increasingly flexible labour markets and squeezed welfare budgets have seen a fall in living standards of many on low incomes. According to a Which? survey (reported in the Independent article below), in the UK:

Only three in ten expect their family’s situation to improve in the new year, while 60% said they are already dreading the arrival of their winter energy bill. The Which? survey also found that 13 million people could afford to pay for Christmas only by borrowing, with more than four in ten using credit cards, loans or overdrafts to fund their festive spending. A third of people (34%) also dipped into their savings, taking an average of £450 from their accounts.

If recovery is based on borrowing, with real incomes falling, or rising only very slowly, household debt levels are likely to increase. This has been stoked in the UK by the ‘Help to Buy‘ scheme, which has encouraged people to take on more debt and has fuelled the current house price boom. This could prove damaging in the long term, as any decline in confidence could lead to a fall in consumer expenditure once more as people seek to reduce their debts.

And what of the global banking system? Is it now sufficiently robust to weather a new crisis. Is borrowing growing too rapidly? Is bank lending becoming more reckless again? Are banks still too big to fail? Is China’s banking system sufficiently robust? These are questions considered in the articles below and, in particular, in the New York Times article by Gordon Brown, the former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Articles
Global economy: hopes and fears for 2014The Observer, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (29/12/13)
Looking ahead to 2014 BBC News, Linda Yueh (20/12/13)
Low hopes for a happy new financial year in 2014 Independent, Paul Gallagher (29/12/13)
Brisk UK economic growth seen in 2014 fuelled by spending – Reuters poll Reuters, Andy Bruce (12/12/13)
GLobal Economy: 2014 promises faster growth, but no leap forward Reuters, Andy Bruce (29/12/13)
My 2014 Economic Briefing Huffington Post, Tony Dolphin (27/12/13)
Three UK Economy Stories that will Dominate in 2014 International Business Times, Shane Croucher (27/12/13)
Who You Calling a BRIC? Bloomberg, Jim O’Neill (12/11/13)
Hope and Hurdles in 2014 Project Syndicate, Pingfan Hong (27/12/13)
On top of the world again The Economist (18/11/13)
Digging deeper The Economist (31/10/13)
BCC Economic Forecast: growth is gathering momentum, but recovery is not secure British Chambers of Commerce (12/13)
Eight predictions for 2014 Market Watch, David Marsh (30/12/13)
Stumbling Toward the Next Crash New York Times, Gordon Brown (18/12/13)
Central banks must show leadership to rejuvenate global economy The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/1/14)
Global economy set to grow faster in 2014, with less risk of sudden shocks The Guardian, Nouriel Roubini (31/12/13)
A dismal new year for the global economy The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (8/1/14)

Forecasts and reports
World Economic Outlook (WEO) IMF (October 2013)
Economic Outlook OECD (November 2013)
Output, prices and jobs The Economist
Bank of England Inflation Report: Overview Bank of England (November 2013)

Questions

  1. What reasons are there to be cheerful about the global economic prospects for 2014 and 2015?
  2. Who will gain the most from economic growth in the UK and why?
  3. Why is the eurozone likely to grow so slowly, if at all?
  4. Are we stumbling towards another banking crisis, and if so, which can be done about it?
  5. Why has unemployment fallen in the UK despite falling living standards for most people?
  6. What is meant by ‘hysteresis’ in the context of unemployment? Is there a problem of hysteresis at the current time and, if so, what can be done about it?
  7. Explain whether the MINT economies are likely to be a major source of global economic growth in the coming year?
  8. Why is it so difficult to forecast the rate of economic growth over the next 12 months, let alone over a longer time period?
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What’s more important: the volume or the value of the Scotch you drink?

In the blog No accounting for trade, the rise in the UK’s balance of trade deficit was discussed. Many factors have contributed to this weakening position and no one market is to blame. But, by analysing one product and thinking about the factors that have caused its export volumes to decline, we can begin to create a picture not just of the UK economy (or more particularly Scotland!), but of the wider global economy.

Scotch whisky may not have been the drink of choice for many British adults, but look outside Great Britain and the volume consumed is quite staggering. For example, French consumers drink more Scotch whisky in one month than they drink cognac in one year. The volume of Scotch whisky exported from our shores was £4.23 billion for 2011, accounting for 90% of all sales and making its way into 200 markets. However, one problem with this product is that it is highly susceptible to the business cycle. Add to this the time required to produce the perfect Scotch (in particular the fact that it must be left to mature) and we have a market where forecasting is a nightmare.

Producers typically look to forecast demand some 10 years ahead and so getting it right is not always easy, especially when the global economy declines following a financial crisis! So what has been the impact on exports of this luxurious drink? In the past few years, it has been as key growth market for UK exports rising by 190% in value over the past decade. But in 2012 the volume of Scotch whisky exports fell by 5% to 1.19 billion bottles. What explains the decline in sales?

The biggest importer of Scotch whisky is France and its volumes were down by 25%. Part of this decline is undoubtedly the economic situation. When incomes decline, demand for normal goods also falls. Many would suggest Scotch whisky is a luxury and thus we would expect to see a relatively large decline following any given fall in income. However, another factor adding to this decline in 2012 is the increased whisky tax imposed by the French government. Rising by 15% in 2012, commentators suggest that this caused imports of Scotch whisky to rise in 2011 to avoid this tax, thus imports in 2012 took a dive. Spain is another key export market and its economic troubles are clearly a crucial factor in explaining their 20% drop in volume of Scotch whisky imported.

But, it’s not all bad news: sales to Western Europe may be down, but Eastern Europe and other growth countries/continents, such as the BRICs and Africa have developed a taste for this iconic product. Latvia and Estonia’s value of Scotch whisky imports were up by 48% and 28% respectively, as Russian demand rises and China, still growing, is another key market. Gavin Hewitt, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association said:

A combination of successful trade negotations, excellent marketing by producers, growing demand from mature markets, particularly the USA, and the growing middle class in emerging economies helped exports hit a record £4.3bn last year.

Furthermore, while the volume of exports worldwide did fall, the value of these exports rose to £4.27 billion, a growth of 1%. This suggests that although we are exporting fewer bottles, the bottles that we are exporting are more expensive ones. Clearly some people have not felt the impact of the recession. For Scotland and the wider UK, these declining figures are concerning, but given the cyclical nature of the demand, as the world economy slowly begins to recover, sales are likely to follow suit. Gavin Hewitt continued his comments above, saying:

We are contributing massively to the Government’s wish for an export-led recovery. There is confidence in the future of the industry, illustrated by the £2bn capital investment that Scotch whisky producers have committed over the next three to four years.

The following articles consider the rise and fall of this drink and its role as a key export market across the world.

Scottish whisky industry puts export hope in new market BBC News (2/4/13)
Scotch whisky sales on the slide The Guardian, Simon Neville (2/4/13)
Growth stalls for Scotch whisky exports BBC News (2/4/13)
Scotch whisky accounts for 25pc of UK’s food and drink exports The Telegraph, Auslan Cramb (2/4/13)
Whisky sales fall but value of exports hits new high Herald Scotland (3/4/13)
Scotch whisky exports rise to record value The Telegraph, Auslan Cramb (2/4/13)
Scotch whisky exports hit by falling demand in France The Grocer, Vince Bamford (2/4/13)
New markets save Scotch from impact of austerity Independent, Tom Bawden (2/4/13)
Scotch exports hit by falling demand Financial Times, Hannah Kichler (2/4/13)

Questions

  1. Which is the better measure of an industry’s performance: the value or the volume of goods sold?
  2. Why would you expect volumes of Scotch sold to decline during an economic downturn?
  3. When a higher tax was imposed on Scotch whisky in France, why did volumes fall? Use a demand and supply diagram to illustrate the impact of the tax.
  4. What type of figure would you expect Scotch whisky to have for income elasticity of demand? Does it vary for different people?
  5. Why is forecasting demand for Scotch so difficult? What techniques might be used?
  6. Why does demand for Scotch whisky remain high and even rising in many emerging markets?
  7. Is the market for Scotch whisky exports a good indication of the interdependence of countries across the world?
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Moody Blues

Moody’s, one of the three main international credit rating agencies, has just downgraded the UK’s credit rating from the top Aaa rating to Aa1. The other two agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch may follow suit as they have the UK’s triple A rating on ‘negative outlook’.

The reason for Moody’s decision can be see in its press statement:

The key interrelated drivers of today’s action are:
1. The continuing weakness in the UK’s medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which Moody’s now expects will extend into the second half of the decade;
2. The challenges that subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government’s fiscal consolidation programme, which will now extend well into the next parliament;
3. And, as a consequence of the UK’s high and rising debt burden, a deterioration in the shock-absorption capacity of the government’s balance sheet, which is unlikely to reverse before 2016.

The direct economic consequences of Moody’s action are likely to be minimal. People were excpecting a downgrade sooner or later for the reasons Moody’s quotes. Thus stock markets, bond markets and foreign exchange markets already reflect this. Indeed, in the first seven weeks of 2013, the sterling exchange rate index has depreciated by over 6%.

The political consequences, however, are likely to be significant. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Orborne, has put considerable emphasis on the importance of maintaining a triple A rating. He has seen it as a sign of the confidence of investors in the government’s policy of focusing on cutting the public-sector deficit and, ultimately, of cutting the public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP. His response, therefore, has been that the government will redouble its efforts to reduce the deficit.

Not surprisingly the Labour opposition claims the downgrading is evidence that the government’s austerity policies are not working. If the aim is to cut the deficit/GDP ratio, this is difficult if GDP is falling or just ‘flat lining’. A less aggressive austerity policy, it is argued, would allow growth to recover and this rise in the denominator would allow the deficit/GDP ratio to fall.

Latest forecasts are that government borrowing is set to rise. The average of 24 independent forecasts of the UK economy, published by the Treasury on 13/2/13, is that public-sector net borrowing will rise from £90.7bn in 2012/13 to £107bn in 2013/14. And the European Commission forecast of the UK economy is that the general government deficit will rise from 5.9% of GDP in 2012/13 to 7.0% of GDP in 2013/14.

So what will be the economic and political consequences of the loss of the triple A rating? What policy options are open to the government? The following articles explore these questions. Not surprisingly, they don’t all agree!

Downgrading Britain: The Friday night drop The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (23/2/13)
Rating downgrade: Q&A The Observer, Josephine Moulds (24/2/13)
Downgrade is Osborne’s punishment for deficit-first policy The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/2/13)
Britain’s downgraded credit rating: Moody’s wake-up call must trigger a change of course The Observer (24/2/13)
Editorial: AAA loss is a sign of failure Independent (24/2/13)
It’s not the end of the world – but it’s the end of any false complacency Independent, Hamish McRae (24/2/13)
Moody’s downgrade will stiffen George Osborne’s resolve The Telegraph, Kamal Ahmed (23/2/13)
UK AAA downgrade: Budget is now George Osborne’s make or break moment The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (23/2/13)
Britain’s credit downgrade is a call to live within our means The Telegraph, Liam Halligan (23/2/13)
Britain will take years to earn back AAA rating, says Ken Clarke The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (24/2/13)

Questions

  1. How important are credit agencies’ sovereign credit ratings to a country (a) economically; (b) politically? Why may the political effects have subsequent economic effects?
  2. Explain the meaning of the terms ‘exogenous’ and ‘endogenous’ variables. In terms of the determination of economic growth, are government expenditure and tax revenue exogenous or endogenous variables? What are the implications for a policy of cutting the government deficit?
  3. Identify the reasons for the predicted rise in the public-sector deficit as a proportion of GDP. Which of these, if any, are ‘of the government’s own making’?
  4. In the absence of a change in its fiscal stance, what policies could the government adopt to increase business confidence?
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Feeling low

Each month the accountancy firm BDO publishes its Business Trends Indices. These indices “are ‘polls of polls’ that pull together the results of all the main UK business surveys”. The latest report shows that the January 2013 Optimism Index was its lowest since the report began 21 years ago.

The Optimism Index predicts business performance two quarters ahead. In January 2013 it was 88.9. The way the index is constructed, a reading of 95 or more suggests that firms are optimistic about business performance. Clearly, they were pessimistic.

Although there was an increase in hiring intentions, firms were still predicting a fall in output. The indices for optimism, employment and output are shown in the chart. (Click here for a PowerPoint.)

As Peter Hemington, Partner, BDO LLP, commented:

In spite of a strengthening Labour Market, business confidence continues to weaken, and improved hiring intentions are not translating into growth plans. It seems the damaging effects on businesses of five years’ zigzagging economic growth, has left them wary of making concrete plans for expansion and resigned to the ‘new normal’ of economic stagnation.

To end this cycle, it is imperative that the Government implements plans to expedite growth. Without growth incentives, we will continue to see UK businesses reluctant to invest and expand, which poses a grave threat to the UK’s economic recovery.

The following articles comment on the gloomy mood of business and on its implications for output and investment. They also look at the implications for government policy.

Articles
Confidence slumps despite optimism from manufacturers Insider News (11/2/13)
Fears of a triple-dip recession return as survey puts business confidence at a 21-year low This is Money (11/2/13)
Pressure grows on ministers for growth strategy Yorkshire Post (11/2/13)
Triple-dip jitters as business confidence hits 21-yr low Management Today, Michael Northcott (11/2/13)

Report and data
Business Trends: Business confidence hits 21-year low signalling economic contraction BDO Press Release (11/2/13)
BDO Monthly Business Trends Indices, February 2013 – Full Report BDO (11/2/13)
Business and Consumer Surveys European Commission: Economic and Financial Affairs

Questions

  1. What reasons are given by the report for a decline in business optimism?
  2. Explain how an accelerator/multiplier interaction could compound the recession or help to cause a bounce back from recession.
  3. How does business sentiment in one country affect business sentiment in others?
  4. In the absence of a change in its fiscal stance, what policies could the government adopt to increase business confidence?
  5. Why might firms’ hiring intentions increase even though they are predicting a fall in output?
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The Autumn Statement about a long cold winter

The Autumn Statement, delivered annually by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in late November or early December, is rather like a second Budget. In his statement, the Chancellor presents new forecasts for the UK economy by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and announces various policy changes in the light of the forecasts.

So what does this OBR say? Its headline reads, “Government borrowing revised higher as weaker economy hits revenues” and this is followed by the statement:

The OBR has revised up its forecasts for public-sector borrowing over the next five years, as a weaker outlook for the economy reduces tax revenues. As a result, the Government no longer seems likely to achieve its target of reducing public-sector net debt in 2015–16.

The chart shows OBR forecasts for public-sector net borrowing made in June 2010 (its first forecast after the OBR was formed by the Coalition government), in March 2012 and in December 2012. The current forecast clearly shows borrowing set to decline more slowly than in the earlier forecasts. Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart. (Note that the effects of transferring the pension assets of the Royal Mail to the Treasury and the effects of not paying interest to the Bank of England on government bonds purchased under quantitative easing programmes have not been included in order to make the three forecasts consistent.)

So with a weaker economy and slower recovery than previously forecast, what are George Osborne’s options? He and his colleagues, along with various economists, argue for sticking to Plan A. This means continuing with austerity measures in order to get the public-sector deficit down. But with government borrowing having fallen more slowly than forecast, this means further government expenditure cuts, such as reductions in benefits, cuts in grants to local authorities and reductions in pensions relief. Even so, achieving his two targets – (1) eliminating the cyclically adjusted current (as opposed to capital) budget deficit by 2015/16 (the so-called ‘fiscal mandate’), and (2) public-sector debt falling as a proportion of GDP by 2015/16 – will both be missed. They were extended by a year in the Budget last March. They have now been extended by a further year to 2017/18.

The opposition and many other economists argue that Plan A has failed. Austerity has prevented the economy from growing and has thus meant a slower reduction in the deficit as tax revenues have not grown nearly as much as hoped for. A more expansionary policy would allow the deficit to be reduced more quickly, especially if extra government expenditure were focused on infrastructure and other capital spending.

It could be argued that George Osborne’s Autumn Statement moves some way in this direction – a Plan A+. He is making deeper cuts in welfare and government departmental spending in order to divert monies into capital spending. For example, there will be £1bn of extra expenditure on roads; £1bn extra on schools; £270m on FE colleges; and £600m extra for scientific research. Also, by extending the period of austerity to 2017/18, this has meant that he has not had to make even deeper cuts. What is more, he is increasing income tax allowances and cutting the rate of corporation tax by 1% more than originally planned and scrapping the planned 3p per litre rise in road fuel duty. He hopes to make up any lost tax revenue from these measures by HMRC clamping down on tax evasion.

But by sticking to his broad austerity strategy, and with many parts of the global economy having weakened, it looks as if the UK economy is in for several more years of sluggish growth. Winter is going to be long.

Webcasts and Podcasts
Autumn Statement: George Osborne scraps 3p fuel duty rise BBC News, Carole Walker (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: OBR says deficit ‘shrinking more slowly’ BBC News, Robert Chote (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Headlines from George Osborne’s speech BBC News, Andrew Neil (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Flanders, Robinson and Peston reactio BBC News, Stephanie Flanders, Nick Robinson and Robert Peston (5/12/12)
Boosting the British Budget CNN, Jim Boulden (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012: key points – video analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott, Jill Treanor, Patrick Collinson and Damian Carrington (5/12/12)

Articles
Autumn Statement 2012: the full speech The Telegraph (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: Benefit squeeze as economy slows BBC News (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: At-a-glance summary of key points BBC News (5/12/12/)
Austerity to last until 2018, admits George Osborne Independent, Oliver Wright
Autumn statement: George Osborne reveals benefits cut Channel 4 News (5/12/12/)
Autumn Statement 2012: Cut welfare, create jobs – a very Tory statement The Telegraph, Damian Reece (5/12/12)
Autumn statement 2012: economy weaker than expected, Osborne says The Guardian, Heather Stewart (5/12/12)
Analysis: Even the ‘autumn’ bit seemed optimistic BBC News, Chris Mason (5/12/12)
George Osborne’s autumn statement 2012: reaction The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (5/12/12)
Candid Osborne avoids political risk Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (5/12/12)
Autumn statement: Why George Osborne’s Budget won’t be a game changer The Telegraph, Allister Heath (4/12/12/)
Autumn statement 2012: expert verdict The Guardian, Richard Murphy, Dominic Raab, Ann Pettifor, Gavin Kelly, Prateek Buch and Mark Serwotka (5/12/12/)
The alternative autumn statement Channel 4 News (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012: man cannot live by deficit reduction alone The Telegraph, Roger Bootle (5/12/12)
Autumn statement: cuts are just a sideshow The Guardian, John Redwood (5/12/12)
What does the Autumn Statement mean for business? Economia, David Mellor (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement Reaction: UK AAA ‘safe for today’ Investment Week (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement: A wintry statement of reality BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (4/12/12)
What has changed? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (6/12/12)
UK warned on debt ‘credibility’ over AAA rating BBC News (5/12/12)

Data
Autumn statement 2012 in charts The Guardian, Simon Rogers (5/12/12/)
Who suffers most from Britain’s austerity? How the figures stack up The Guardian, Tom Clark (5/12/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook charts and tables – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Economic and fiscal outlook supplementary economy tables – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Forecasts for the UK economy HM-Treasury

OBR, Treasury and IFS links
Economic and fiscal outlook – December 2012 OBR (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012 HM Treasury (5/12/12)
Autumn Statement 2012 IFS

Questions

  1. Distinguish between ‘stocks’ and ‘flows’. Define (a) public-sector net borrowing (PSNB) and (b) the public-sector net debt (PSND) and explain whether each one is a stock or a flow.
  2. Summarise the measures announced by George Osborne in his Autumn Statement.
  3. What are his arguments for not adopting a more expansionary fiscal policy?
  4. Assess his arguments.
  5. What is meant by the ‘output gap’? What are the OBR’s forecasts about the output gap and what are the implications?
  6. How has quantitative easing affected PSNB and PSND?
  7. Distinguish between the cyclical and structural deficit. What implications does this distinction have for fiscal policy?
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Cloudy crystal balls

In a previous blog, Anyone got a crystal ball?, we reported on the Bank of England’s and other agencies’ difficulty in making forecasts. As the Governor, Mervyn King, said, “There is just enormous uncertainty out there.”

The Bank of England has just published its November Inflation Report. This quarterly publication gives forecasts of inflation, GDP and other indicators. It is clear that forecasting hasn’t become any easier. In his opening remarks, Dr. King says:

Continuing the recent zig-zag pattern, output growth is likely to fall back sharply in Q4 as the boost from the Olympics in the summer is reversed – indeed output may shrink a little this quarter. It is difficult to discern the underlying picture. It is probably neither as good as the zigs suggest nor as bad as the zags imply.

The Inflation Report looks at the various factors affecting aggregate demand, inflation, unemployment and aggregate supply. It is quite clear on reading the report why there is so much uncertainty.

A salutary lesson is to look back at previous forecasts and see just how wrong they have been. The chart above shows the forecasts for GDP made in the Inflation Reports of Nov 2012 and Aug 2011. You can see that they are significantly different and yet just 15 months apart. You might also like to compare the forecasts made a year ago (or even two!) about 2012 with the actual situation today. A good source for this is the Treasury’s Forecasts for the UK economy. This collates the forecasts from a range of independent forecasters.

The inaccuracy of forecasting is an inevitable consequence of a highly interdependent world economy that is subject to a range of economic shocks and where confidence (or lack of it) is a major determinant of aggregate demand. But when firms, governments, individuals and central banks have to make plans, it is still necessary to project into the future and try to forecast as accurately as possible – even though it might mean keeping your fingers firmly crossed.

Articles
Bank of England downgrades growth forecast for 2013 Daily Record (14/11/12)
A gloomy picture from the Old Lady Financial Times (14/11/12)
Will Britain’s post-recession economy be resurgent, stagnant or greener? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/11/12)
Economics must heed political risk Financial Times, Sebastian Mallaby (6/11/12)
European Commission autumn forecast: overoptimistic and in denial Social Europe Journal, Andrew Watt (7/11/12)
Bank of England gets long to-do list for overhaul Reuters, Sven Egenter (2/11/12)

Data
Inflation Report, November 2012 Bank of England
Index of economic forecasts European Commission DGECFIN
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD
World Economic Outlook Reports IMF
Forecasts for the UK economy HM Treasury

Questions

  1. What was being forecast for economic growth and inflation for 2012 (a) one year ago; (b) two years ago?
  2. What are the main reasons for the inaccuracy of forecasts?
  3. How might forecasting be made more reliable?
  4. If sentiment is a key determinant of economic activity, how might politicians increase the confidence of firms and consumers? What are the political constraints on doing this?
  5. Explain the following statement from the Guardian article: “The problem … is that last decade’s tailwind has become this decade’s headwind.” Why is it difficult to forecast the strength of this ‘headwind’?
  6. How useful is it to use past trends as a guide to the future course of the economy?
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Anyone got a crystal ball?

With the deepening euro crisis, the slide back into recession in many developed countries and the slowing down of fast-growing developing countries, such as China and India, confidence is waning.

But just as pessimism increases, so too does uncertainty. The global economy is getting more and more difficult to forecast. So should economists give up trying to forecast? Should we rely on guesswork and hunch, or looking into crystal balls?

Bank of England representatives have been appearing before the Treasury Select Committee. And they have reiterated the consensus that things are getting more difficult to forecast. As Mervyn King said in his evidence:

There is just enormous uncertainty out there. I have no idea what is going to happen in the euro area.

And this uncertainty is making people cautious, which, in turn, damages recovery. As Dr King went on to say:

There is no doubt that with the additional uncertainty this year there’s evidence of people behaving in a very defensive way, being unwilling to invest and of course the most extreme example of that would be if we were to get to a liquidity trap where essentially the main assets people wanted to hold were claims on the central bank.

Part of the reason for the uncertainty about global growth prospects is uncertainty about what European leaders will decide about the future of the eurozone. Another is uncertainty about how people will respond to the uncertainty of others. But predicting how others will predict is very difficult as they will themselves be predicting what others will predict. This dilemma was observed by Keynes when observing how investors on the stock market behaved, all trying to predict what others will do, and is known as the Keynesian Beauty Contest dilemma (see also).

So are governments and central banks powerless to counteract the uncertainty and pessimism? Can they restore confidence and growth? Members of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee believe that further action can be taken to stimulate aggregate demand. Further quantitative easing and cuts in interest rates could help as, according to Dr King, we are not yet in a liquidity trap.

UK Economic Outlook Uncertain Amid Euro Zone Crisis – BOE NASDAQ, Ilona Billington (26/6/12)
BOE King: UK Not In Liquidity Trap; No Limit On QE Market News International (26/6/12)
BOE King: Unity On Loose Policy; Not Half Way Through Crisis Market News International (26/6/12)
Full Text Of BOE MPC Dale At Treasury Select Committee Market News International (26/6/12)
Recovery still five years away, Mervyn King warns The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (26/6/12)
Governor pessimistic on recovery ShareCast, Michael Millar (26/6/12)
Bank’s King says ‘pessimistic’ about worsening economy BBC News (26/6/12)
UK economic outlook getting worse, warns Bank of England Guardian, Phillip Inman (26/6/12)

Questions

  1. Why is it worth economists forecasting, even if those forecasts rarely turn out to be totally accurate?
  2. Why is it particularly difficult in current circumstances to forecast the state of the macroeconomy 12 months hence – let alone in two or three years?
  3. In what ways is the global macroeconomic situation deteriorating? What can national governments do about it?
  4. What limits the effectiveness of government action to deal with the current situation?
  5. What is meant by the liquidity trap? Are we close to being in such a situation today?
  6. Explain what is meant by the Keynesian Beauty Contest? How is this relevant today in explaining economic uncertainty and the difficulty of forecasting the economy?
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A gathering storm (Part 2)

In the second part of this blog, we look at an interview with the Guardian given by Robert Chote, Chair of the UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility. Like Mervyn King’s, that we looked at in Part 1, Robert Chote’s predictions are also gloomy.

In particular, he argues that if Greece leaves the euro, the effects on the UK economy could be significant, not just in the short term, but in the long term too.

The concern is that you end up with an outcome in the eurozone that creates the same sort of structural difficulties in the financial system and in the economy that we saw in the past recession, and that that has consequences both for hitting economic activity in the economy, but also its underlying potential. And it’s the latter which has particular difficulties for the fiscal position, because it means not just that the economy weakens and then strengthens again – ie, it goes into a hole and comes out – but that you go down and you never quite get back up to where you started. And that has more lingering, long-term consequences for the public finances.

The interview looked not just at the effects of the current crisis in the eurozone on the eurozone, British and world economies, but also at a number of other issues, including: the reliability of forecasts and those of the OBR in particular; relations between the OBR and the Treasury; allowing the OBR to cost opposition policies; the economic effect of cutting the 50p top rate of income tax; the sustainability of public-sector pensions; and tax increases or spending cuts in the long term.

In Part 3 we look at attempts by the G8 countries to find a solution to the mounting crisis.

Articles
Robert Chote interview: ‘I would not say in the past there’s been rigging’ Guardian, Andrew Sparrow (18/5/12)
UK ‘may never fully recover’ if Greece exits euro Guardian, Andrew Sparrow, Helena Smith and Larry Elliott (18/5/12)
British economy may ‘never quite recover’ from a severe Euro collapse The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (18/5/12)

OBR report
Economic and fiscal outlook Office for Budget Responsibility (March 2012)

Questions

  1. Why is it very difficult to forecast the effects of a Greek withdrawal from the euro?
  2. Why may Greek withdrawal have an effect on long-term potential output in the UK and the rest of Europe?
  3. Why are economic forecasts in general so unreliable? Does this mean that we should abandon economic forecasting?
  4. Why are public finances “likely to come under pressure over the longer term”?
  5. Why might the cut in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% have little impact on economic growth? Distinguish between income and substitution effects of the tax cut.
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