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Posts Tagged ‘government expenditure’

The political business cycle – mark II

During the 1970s, commentators often referred to the ‘political business cycle’. As William Nordhaus stated in a 1989 paper. “The theory of the political business cycle, which analyzes the interaction of political and economic systems, arose from the obvious facts of life that voters care about the economy while politicians care about power.”

In the past, politicians would use fiscal, and sometimes monetary, policies to manipulate aggregate demand so that the economy was growing strongly at the time of the next election. This often meant doing unpopular things in the first couple of years of office to allow for popular things, such as tax cuts and increased government transfers, as the next election approached. This tended to align the business cycle with the election cycle. The economy would slow in the early years of a parliament and expand rapidly towards the end.

To some extent, this has been the approach since 2010 of first the Coalition and now the Conservative governments. Cuts to government expenditure were made ‘in order to clear up the mess left by the previous government’. At the time it was hoped that, by the next election, the economy would be growing strongly again.

But in adopting a fiscal mandate, the current government could be doing the reverse of previous governments. George Osborne has set the target of a budget surplus by the final year of this parliament (2019–20) and has staked his reputation on achieving it.

The problem, as we saw in the blog, Hitting – or missing – the government’s self-imposed fiscal targets is that growth in the economy has slowed and this makes it more difficult to achieve the target of a budget surplus by 2019–20. Given that achieving this target is seen to be more important for his reputation for ‘sound management’ of the public finances than that the economy should be rapidly growing, it is likely that the Chancellor will be dampening aggregate demand in the run-up to the next election. Indeed, in the latest Budget, he announced that specific measures would be taken in 2019–20 to meet the target, including a further £3.5 billion of savings from departmental spending in 2019–20. In the meantime, however, taxes would be cut (such as increasing personal allowances and cutting business rates) and government spending in certain areas would be increased. As the OBR states:

Despite a weaker outlook for the economy and tax revenues, the Chancellor has announced a net tax cut and new spending commitments. But he remains on course for a £10 billion surplus in 2019–20, by rescheduling capital investment, promising other cuts in public services spending and shifting a one-off boost to corporation tax receipts into that year.

But many commentators have doubted that this will be enough to bring a surplus. Indeed Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, stated on BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme said that “there’s only about a 50:50 shot that he’s going to get there. If things change again, if the OBR downgrades its forecasts again, I don’t think he will be able to get away with anything like this. I think he will be forced to put some proper tax increases in or possibly find yet further proper spending cuts”.

If that is the case, he will be further dampening the economy as the next election approaches. In other words, the government may be doing the reverse of what governments did in the past. Instead of boosting the economy to increase growth at election time, the government may feel forced to make further cuts in government expenditure and/or to raise taxes to meet the fiscal target of a budget surplus.

Articles
Budget 2016: George Osborne hits back at deficit critics BBC News (17/3/16)
George Osborne will have to break his own rules to win the next election Business Insider, Ben Moshinsky (17/3/16)
Osborne Accused of Accounting Tricks to Meet Budget Surplus Goal Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell and Robert Hutton (16/3/16)
George Osborne warns more cuts may be needed to hit surplus target Financial Times, Jim Pickard (17/3/16)
6 charts that explain why George Osborne is about to make austerity even worse Independent, Hazel Sheffield (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: Osborne ‘has only 50-50 chance’ of hitting surplus target The Guardian, Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
How will Chancellor George Osborne reach his surplus? BBC News, Howard Mustoe (16/3/16)
Osborne’s fiscal illusion exposed as a house of credit cards The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/3/16)
The Budget’s bottom line: taxes will rise and rise again The Telegraph, Allister Heath (17/3/16)

Reports, analysis and documents
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (16/3/16)
Budget 2016: documents HM Treasury (16/3/16)
Budget 2016 Institute for Fiscal Studies (17/3/16)

Questions

  1. Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
  2. Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
  3. For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
  4. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.
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UK spending on welfare: definitions, myths and facts

How much does the UK spend on welfare? This is a highly charged political question, with some arguing that benefit claimants are putting great demands on ‘hard-working tax payers’. According to information being sent by the government to all 24 million income tax payers in the UK, the figure of £168bn being spent on welfare is around 24.5% of public spending. But what is included in the total? Before you read on, try writing down the categories of government expenditure included under the heading ‘welfare’.

The heading does not include spending on certain parts of the ‘welfare state’, such as health and education. These are services, the production of which contributes to GDP. The category ‘welfare’ does not include expenditure on produced services, but rather transfer payments. The way the government is using the term, it does not include state pensions either, which account for 11.6% of public expenditure. So does the 24.5% largely consist of payments to the unemployed? The answer is no.

The category ‘welfare’ as used by the government includes the following elements. The percentages are of total managed expenditure (i.e. government spending).

Public service pensions, paid to retired public-sector employees, such as teachers, police officers, doctors and nurses (2.6%)
Other support for the elderly, including pension credit, winter fuel allowance, bus passes, etc. (1.5%)
Sickness and disability benefits, including long-term care for the elderly, sick and disabled (6.6%)
Support for families and children, such as child benefit and child tax credits (3.4%)
Social exclusion, including income support and housing benefit (7.8%)
Unemployment benefits, including Job Seekers Allowance (0.7%)
Other (1.9%)

Lumping all these together under a single heading ‘welfare’ can be highly misleading, as many people have strongly held preconceptions about who gets welfare. In fact the term is used pejoratively by many who resent their taxes being given to those who do not work.

But, as you can see from the figures, only a small proportion goes to the unemployed, the majority of whom (around 65%) are unemployed for less than a year as they move between jobs (see). The bulk of benefits goes to children, the retired and the working poor.

Another preconception is that much of welfare spending goes to fraudulent claimants. But, as the article by Professor Hills states:

Just 0.7% of all benefits was over-paid as the result of fraud, less than the amount underpaid as a result of official error. For the main benefit for unemployed people, Jobseeker’s Allowance, estimated fraud was 2.9%, or an annual total of £150million.

It is also important to consider people’s life cycle. The same people receive benefits (via their parents or guardians) as children, pay taxes when they work and receive benefits when they retire or fall sick. Thus you might be a net contributor to public finances at one time and a net beneficiary at another. For example, the majority of pensioners were net contributors when they were younger and are now mainly net beneficiaries. Many unemployed people who rely on benefits now were net contributors when they had a job.

The message is that you should be careful when interpreting statistics, even if these statistics are factually accurate. How figures are grouped together and the labels put on them can give a totally misleading impression. And politicians are always keen to ‘spin’ statistics to their advantage – whether in government or opposition.

Webcast
Annual Tax Summary: TUC and MPs on spending information BBC Daily Politics, Jo Coburn (3/11/14)

Articles
Osborne’s tax summary dismissed as propaganda by the TU BBC News (3/11/14)
The truth about welfare spending: Facts or propaganda? BBC News, Brian Milligan (4/11/14)
Its Cost Is Just One of the Myths Around ‘Welfare’ Huffington Post, John Hills (12/11/14)
Welfare spending summary criticised Express & Star (4/11/14)

Data and Reports
Public Expenditure: Statistical Analyses (PESA) 2014 HM Treasury (see Table 5.2)
DWP annual report and accounts 2013 to 2014 Department of Work and Pensions (see Table 2)
Welfare trends report – October 2014 Office for Budget Responsibility
What is welfare spending? Institute for Fiscal Studies (4/11/14)

Questions

  1. What benefits do you receive? How would you expect this to change over your lifetime?
  2. What are the arguments for (a) reducing and (b) increasing welfare payments. In each case, under which categories of welfare would you decrease or increase the level of benefits?
  3. Referring to Table 5.2 in the PESA data below (the table used for the government’s calculations), which of the categories would be classified as expenditure on goods and services and which as transfer payments?
  4. Assess the arguments of the IFS for the reclassification of the categories of ‘welfare’ payments.
  5. Referring to the pie chart above, also in the BBC video and articles and Table 5.2 in the PESA data, assess the arguments about the size of the UK’s contributions to the EU budget.
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Japan’s CPI: An Update

At the end of January 2014, we looked at the problem of deflation and in particular at the fortunes of Japan, as its CPI was rising. As the blog explained, the Japanese economy, rather than being plagued by high inflation has been plagued by deflation and many suggest this is even worse.

In December 2013, Japan’s core consumer prices were growing faster than expected. The data gave the economy a much needed boost, following increases in government spending aimed at stimulating aggregate demand. This in turn pushed up prices, such that they achieved their fastest rate of growth in 5 years. Now, more recent date from May 2014 shows that the trend has continued. Prices in Japan have now increase at their fastest rate in 23 years, rising 3.2% and beating the forecasts of 3.1%. This means that prices have no risen in Japan for 11 consecutive months. Numerous policies have contributed towards this impressive trend for an economy plagued by deflation for 2 decades. Boosts in the money supply, increases in government spending, a rise in sales tax are just some of the contributing factors.

Although the economy is certainly over the problem of deflation, some are now concerned that such price rises may reduce consumer spending. An ironic twist, given that barely a year ago the concern about low consumer spending was due to deflation. The next 12 months will be a key indicator of how consumers will respond to this unusual inflation data – after all inflation and high prices have been pretty uncommon. The following articles consider the update on the Japanese economy.

Japan inflation rate hits 23 year high (including video) BBC News (30/5/14)
Japan April core CPI rises to 23-year high after sales tax rise Reuters (29/5/14)
Japan inflation accelerates Wall Street Journal, Takashi Nakamichi (30/5/14)
Japan’s consumer inflation set to reach five year high The Guardian (18/4/14)
Japan’s inflation at highest rate for 23 years The Telegraph, Rebecca Clancy (30/5/14)
Japan inflation quickens to fastest since 1991 Bloomberg, Toru Fujioka (30/5/14)
Japaense inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years at 1.3% in December 2013 Independent, Russel Lynch (31/1/14)

Questions

  1. Why is deflation a problem?
  2. Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
  3. Japanese policies have helped create a rise in the CPI. Which policies have been effective in creating rising prices?
  4. Explain how the sales tax has contributed towards higher prices.
  5. With prices rising, there are now concerned that consumer spending may decline. Using a diagram, explain why this may be the case.
  6. In the previous blog, we analysed the Indian economy and said that high inflation was something that was contributing towards lower growth. How is that low inflation or deflation can also contribute towards low growth?
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Inflation is up: good news?

Rising inflation: not normally a cause for celebration, but that’s not the case for Japan. Having been subject to the spectre of deflation for many years, the 22-year high for the CPI at 2.7% is a welcome figure, even it is slightly lower than expected. This surge in prices is partly the result of a growth in domestic demand and a sign, therefore, that output will expand in response to the rise in demand.

The Japanese economy has experienced largely stagnant growth for two decades and a key cause has been falling prices. Although consumers like bargains, this has been problematic for this large economy. Deflation creates continuously falling prices and this means consumers hold back from purchasing durable goods, preferring to wait until prices have fallen further.

In the blog, Japan’s recovery, we looked at inflation data showing Japanese consumer prices growing at a faster rate than expected. This ‘positive’ trend has continued.

When it comes to inflation, expectations are crucial. If people think prices will rise in the future, they are more likely to buy now to get the lower price. This can therefore help to stimulate aggregate demand and it is this that has been the target for Japan. Part of the growth in the CPI is down to the sales tax rise from 5% to 8%. This was the first time in 17 years that the sales tax had increased. Further increases in it are expected in 2015. There were concerns about the impact of this rise, based on the depression that followed the last rise back in 1997, but so far the signs seem good.

Monetary easing was a key component in ending the downward trajectory of the Japanese economy and, following the sales tax rise, many believe that another round of monetary easing may be needed to counter the effects and create further growth in the economy and in the CPI. As the Bank of Japan Governor said:

There are various ways to adjust policy. We will decide what among these measures is appropriate depending on economic and price developments at the time … For now, we can say Japan is making steady progress toward achieving 2 per cent inflation.

One of the ‘three arrows‘ of the government’s policy has been to boost government spending, which should directly increase aggregate demand. Furthermore, with signs of the CPI rising, consumers may be encouraged to spend more, giving a much needed boost to consumption. The economy is certainly not out of the woods, but appears to be on the right path. The following articles consider the Japanese economy.

Japan CPI rises less than expected Wall Street Journal, Takashi Nakamichi (25/4/14)
Japan inflation may beat BOJ forecast Reuters, Leika Kihara (22/4/14)
Tokyo consumer price growth at 22-year high BBC News (25/4/14)
Japan inflation quickens to over 5-year high, output rebounds Reuters, Leika Kihara and Stanley White (31/1/14)
Japan’s consumer inflation set to reach five-year high Guardian (18/4/14)
Tokyo inflation hits 22-year high, inching toward BOJ goal Reuters, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Leika Kihara (25/4/14)
Tokyo’s core CPI got 2.7% lift in April from tax hike The Japan Times (25/4/14)
Is Japan winning the war against deflation? CNBC, Ansuya Harjani (25/4/14)

Questions

  1. Why is deflation a problem?
  2. Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
  3. Use the same diagram to explain how expectations of rising prices can help to boost AD.
  4. Why is the sales tax expected to reduce growth?
  5. Why is another round of monetary easing expected?
  6. What government policies would you recommend to a government faced with stagnant growth and falling prices?
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A mini-stimulus for China

The growth of China over the past decade has been quite phenomenal, with figures recorded in double-digits. However, in the aftermath of the recession, growth has declined to around 7% – much higher than Western economies are used to, but significantly below the ‘norm’ for China. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)

The growth target for this year is 7.5%, but there appear to be some concerns about China’s ability to reach this figure and this has been emphasised by a recent Chinese policy.

A mini-stimulus package has been put in place, with the objective of meeting the 7.5% growth target. Government expenditure is a key component of aggregate demand and when other components of AD are lower than expected, boosting ‘G’ can be a solution. However, it’s not something that the Chinese government has had to do in recent years and the fact that this stimulus package has been put in place has brought doubts over China’s economic performance to the forefront , but has confirmed its commitment to growth. Mizuho economist, Shen Jianguang, said:

It’s very obvious that the leaders feel the need to stabilise growth…Overall, the 7.5 per cent growth target means that the government still cares a lot about economic growth.

Data suggest that growth in China is relatively weak and there are concerns that the growth target will be missed, hence the stimulus package. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, there was a large stimulus package in place in China. This latest investment by the government is in no way comparable to the size of the 2008 package, but instead will be on a smaller and more specific scale. Mark Williams of Capital Economics said:

It’s a bit of a rerun of what we saw last year – something less than a stimulus package and more of piecemeal measures to ensure they reach their growth target.

It is the construction of public housing and railways that will be the main areas of investment this time round. A sum of $120–180bn per year will be available for railway construction and $161bn for social housing, and tax breaks are being extended for small businesses.

The 2008 stimulus package saw debt increase to some 200% of GDP, which did cause growing concerns about the reliance on debt. However, this latest package will be financed through the issue of bonds, which is much more similar to how market economies finance spending.

The fact that the government has had to intervene with such a stimulus package is, however, causing growing concerns about the level of debt and the future of this fast growing economy, though the new method of financing is certainly seen as progress.

It should be noted that a decline in growth for China is not only concerning for China itself, but is also likely to have adverse consequences other countries. In the increasingly interdependent world that we live in, Western countries rely on foreign consumers purchasing their exports, and in recent years it has been Chinese consumers that have been a key component of demand. However, a decline in growth may also create some benefits – resources may not be used up as quickly and prices of raw materials and oil in particular may remain lower.

It is certainly too early for alarm bells, but the future of China’s growth is less certain than it was a decade ago. The following articles consider this issue.

China’s new mini-stimulus offers signs of worry and progress BBC News, Linda Yueh (3/4/14)
China puts railways and houses at hear of new stimulus measures The Guardian (3/4/14)
China unveils mini stimulus to to boost slowing economy The Telegraph (3/4/14)
China stimulus puts new focus on growth target Wall Street Journal, Bob Davis and Michael Arnold (3/4/14)
China embarks on ‘mini’ stimulus programme to kick-start economy Independent, Russell Lynch (3/4/14)
China takes first step to steady economic growth Reuters (2/4/14)
China unveils fresh stimulus The Autstralian (3/4/14)
China’s reformers can triumph again, if they follow the right route The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz (2/4/14)

Questions

  1. How has Chinese growth reached double-digits? Which factors are responsible for such high growth?
  2. The BBC News article suggests that the stimulus package is cause for concerns but also shows progress. How can it do both?
  3. Using a diagram, illustrate how a stimulus package can boost economic growth.
  4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of high rates of growth for (a) China and (b) Western economies?
  5. Why does the method of financing growth matter?
  6. Railway and housing construction have been targeted to receive additional finance. Why do you think these sectors have been targeted?
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Flooding the insurance market

Britain has faced some its worst ever weather, with thousands of homes flooded once again, though the total number of flooded households has fallen compared to previous floods. However, for many households, it is just more of the same – if you’ve been flooded once, you’re likely to be flooded again and hence insurance against flooding is essential. But, if you’re an insurance company, do you really want to provide cover to a house that you can almost guarantee will flood?

The government has pledged thousands to help households and businesses recover from the damage left by the floods and David Cameron’s latest step has been to urge insurance companies to deal with claims for flood damage as fast as possible. He has not, however, said anything regarding ‘premium holidays’ for flood victims.

The problem is that the premium you are charged depends on many factors and one key aspect is the likelihood of making a claim. The more likely the claim, the higher the premium. If a household has previous experience of flooding, the insurance company will know that there is a greater likelihood of flooding occurring again and thus the premium will be increased to reflect this greater risk. There have been concerns that some particularly vulnerable home-owners will be unable to find or afford home insurance.

The key thing with insurance is that in order for it to be provided privately, certain conditions must hold. The probability of the event occurring must be less than 1 – insurance companies will not insure against certainty. The probability of the event must be known on aggregate to allow insurance companies to calculate premiums. Probabilities must be independent – if one person makes a claim, it should not increase the likelihood of others making claims.

Finally, there should be no adverse selection or moral hazard, both of which derive from asymmetric information. The former occurs where the person taking out the insurance can hide information from the company (i.e. that they are a bad risk) and the latter occurs when the person taking out insurance changes their behaviour once they are insured. Only if these conditions hold or there are easy solutions will the private market provide insurance.

On the demand-side, consumers must be willing to pay for insurance, which provides them with protection against certain contingencies: in this case against the cost of flood damage. Given the choice, rational consumers will only take out an insurance policy if they believe that the value they get from the certainty of knowing they are covered exceeds the cost of paying the insurance premium. However, if the private market fails to offer insurance, because of failures on the supply-side, there will be major gaps in coverage.

Furthermore, even if insurance policies are offered to those at most risk of flooding, the premiums charged by the insurance companies must be high enough to cover the cost of flood damage. For some homeowners, these premiums may be unaffordable, again leading to gaps in coverage.

Perhaps here there is a growing role for the government and we have seen proposals for a government-backed flood insurance scheme for high-risk properties due to start in 2015. However, a loop hole may mean that wealthy homeowners pay a levy for it, but are not able to benefit from the cheaper premiums, as they are deemed to be able to afford higher premiums. This could see many homes in the Somerset Levels being left out of this scheme, despite households being underwater for months. There is also a further role for government here and that is more investment in flood defences. If that occurs though, where will the money come from? The following articles consider flooding and the problem of insurance.

Insurers urged to process flood claims quickly BBC News (17/2/14)
Flood area defences put on hold by government funding cuts The Guardian, Damian Carrington and Rajeev Syal (17/2/14)
Flooding: 200,000 houses at risk of being uninsurable The Telegraph (31/1/12)
Govt flood insurance plan ‘will not work’ Sky News (14/2/14)
Have we learned our lessons on flooding? BBC News, Roger Harrabin (14/2/14)
ABI refuses to renew statement of principles for flood insurance Insurance Age, Emmanuel Kenning (31/1/12)
Wealthy will have to pay more for flood insurance but won’t be covered because their houses are too expensive Mail Online, James Chapman (7/2/14)
Buyers need ‘flood ratings’ on all houses, Aviva Chief warns The Telegraph, James Quinn (15/2/14)
Wealthy homeowners won’t be helped by flood insurance scheme The Telegraph(11/2/14)
Costly insurance ‘will create flood-risk ghettos and £4.3tn fall in house values’ The Guardian, Patrick Wintour (12/2/14)
Leashold homes face flood insurance risk Financial Times, Alistair Gray (10/2/14)

Questions

  1. Consider the market for insurance against flood damage. Are risks less than one? Explain your answer.
  2. Explain whether or not the risk of flooding is independent.
  3. Are the problems of moral hazard and adverse selection relevant in the case of home insurance against flood damage?
  4. To what extent is the proposed government-backed flood insurance an equitable scheme? Should the government be stepping in to provide insurance itself?
  5. Should there be greater regulation when houses are sold to provide better information about the risk of flooding?
  6. Why if the concept of opportunity cost relevant here?
  7. How might household values be affected by recent floods, in light of the issues with insurance?
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Japan’s recovery

It is rising inflation that typically causes problems for countries, whether it is demand-pull or cost-push. However, one country that has not been subject to problems of rising prices is Japan. Instead, this economy has been suffering from the gloom of deflation for many years and many argue that this is worse than high inflation.

Falling prices are popular among consumers. If you see a product whose price has fallen from one day to the next, you can use your income to buy more goods. What’s the problem with this? The Japanese economy has experienced largely stagnant growth for two decades and a key cause has been falling prices. When the prices of goods begin to fall over and over again, people start to form expectations about the future direction of prices. If I expect the price of a good to fall next week, then why would I buy now, if I can buy the same good next week at a lower price? But, when next week arrives and the price has fallen as expected, why would I purchase the product, if I think that the price fall is set to continue? The problem of deflation is that with continuously falling prices, consumers stop spending. Aggregate demand therefore declines and economic growth all but disappears. This is the problem that the Japanese economy has been faced with for more than 20 years.

However, the latest data from Japan shows core consumer prices growing faster than expected in December 2013, compared to the previous year. This figure was above market forecasts and was the fastest rate of growth in the past 5 years. These data, together with those on unemployment have given the economy a much needed boost.

Recent government policy has been focused on boosts in government spending, with an aim of reducing the value of the currency (click here for a PowerPoint of the chart). Such policies will directly target aggregate demand and this in turn should help to generate an increase in national output and push up prices. If the price trend does begin to reverse, consumers will start to spend and again aggregate demand will be stimulated.

The future of the economy remains uncertain, though the same can be said of many Western economies. However, the signs are good for Japan and if the recovery of other economies continues and gathers pace, Japan’s export market will be a big contributor to recovery. The following articles consider the Japanese economy.

Japan inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years BBC News (31/1/14)
Benchmark Japan inflation rate hits 1.3% Financial Times, Jonathan Soble (31/1/14)
Japan’s inflation accelerates as Abe seeks wage gains Bloomberg, Chikako Mogi, Masahiro Hidaka and James Mayger (31/1/14)
Japan inflation quickens to over 5-year high, output rebounds Reuters, Leika Kihara and Stanley White (31/1/14)
Japaense inflation rises at fastest pace in over five years at 1.3% in December 2013 Independent, Russel Lynch (31/1/14)
Why Abenomics holds lessons for the West BBC News, Linda Yueh (18/12/13)

Questions

  1. Why is deflation a problem?
  2. Using an AD/AS diagram, illustrate the problem of expectations and how this contributes to stagnant growth.
  3. How will a lower currency help Japan?
  4. What is the likely effect of a sales tax being imposed?
  5. Does the fact that unemployment has declined support the fact that consumer prices are beginning to rise?
  6. What government policies would you recommend to a government faced with stagnant growth and falling prices?
  7. How important are expectations in creating the problem of deflation?
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Backing to the edge of the fiscal cliff

At the start of 2013, the USA faces a ‘fiscal cliff’. By this is meant that, without agreement by Congress on new fiscal measures, the USA will be forced into tax rises and expenditure cuts of around $650 billion (over 4% of GDP). This would probably push the economy straight back into recession. This in turn would have a serious dampening effect on the global economy.

But why would fiscal policy be automatically tightened? The first reason is that tax cuts given under the George W. Bush administration during 2001–3 (largely to the rich) are due to expire. Also a temporary cut in payroll taxes and an increase in tax credits given by President Obama are also due to end. These tax increases would form the bulk of the tightening. The average US household would pay an extra $3500 in taxes, reducing after-tax income by around 6%.

The second reason is that various government expenditure programmes are scheduled to be reduced. These reductions in expenditure amount to around $110 billion.

It is likely, however, that Congress will agree to delay or limit the tax increases or expenditure cuts; politicians on both sides want to avoid sending the economy back into recession. But what the agreement will be is not at all clear at this stage.

Republicans are taking a tougher line than Democrats on cutting the budget deficit; they are calling for considerably less restraint in implementing the government expenditure cuts. On the other hand, they are likely to be less willing to raise taxes.

But unless something is done, the consequences for 2013 could be dire. The fiscal cliff edge rapidly approaches.

Articles
Nearly 90 percent of Americans would see taxes rise if ‘fiscal cliff’ hits Washington Post, Lori Montgomery (1/10/12)
Fiscal cliff a serious threat, but unlikely CNN Money, Chris Isidore (1/10/12)
“Fiscal cliff” fears may impede faster job growth Chicago Tribute, Lucia Mutikani (1/10/12)
Avert Fiscal Cliff With Entitlement Cuts, Tax Increases Bloomberg (2/10/12)
‘Fiscal cliff’ to hit 90% of US families Financial Times, James Politi (1/10/12)
Investors don’t want the US to fall off the fiscal cliff The Telegraph, Tom Stevenson (22/9/12)
Gauging the fiscal cliff BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (27/9/12)
The US fiscal cliff – and the fiscal chasm BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (2/10/12)
US fiscal cliff threat fails to galvanise policymakers Guardian Economics blog, Mohamed el-Erian (1/10/12)
Multiplying Europe’s fiscal suicide (technical) The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (1/10/12)
Q&A: The US fiscal cliff BBC News (7/11/12)
US election: Four more years… of what? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/11/12)

Background
United States fiscal cliff Wikipedia

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by the ‘fiscal cliff’ and what is its magnitude.
  2. What would be the multiplier implications of the USA ‘falling off the cliff’ both for the USA and for the rest of the world?
  3. What factors determine the size of the government expenditure and tax multipliers? What would be the problems of (a) underestimating and (b) overestimating the size of these multipliers?
  4. How can a fiscal stimulus be reconciled with a policy of reducing the size of the budget deficit as a proportion of GDP over the longer term?
  5. In what ways can the actions of Democrats and Republicans be seen as game playing? What are the possible payoffs and risks to both sides?
  6. Is relying on export growth to bring the world economy out of recession a zero sum game?
  7. Explain which is likely to be more effective in stimulating short- and medium-term economic growth in the USA: fiscal policy or monetary policy.
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Haven knows the answer to this taxing question

The UK has always been an attractive place for investment, as foreign companies look to cities such as London for stable investment opportunities. This provides not only jobs and output, but also tax revenue for the government. However, one drawback is the lost tax revenue through tax avoidance schemes and big businesses say that if the UK is to remain competitive it needs to look at cutting taxes and bureaucracy.

In recent months, we have seen cases of individuals being prosecuted for tax evasion and more recently in the USA, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard have been criticized by the Senate for allegedly moving an estimated £13bn to offshore accounts. (Microsoft and HP deny any wrong-doing). It is cases like this that provide an argument for governments to cut business rates and avoid losing business and jobs to other tax havens. Lord Fink, who is a Director of Firms located in a variety of tax havens said:

’I don’t see why the UK should not compete for jobs that at present are going to the Cayman Islands’

Tax havens are obviously attractive to firms, as they provide a means of retaining more of a firm’s earnings and hence their profits. By offering a much lower rate of tax than countries such as the UK, they help to ease the tax burden on wealthy individuals and investors in hedge funds, along with many others.

The question is, do these lower tax rates discourage investment into the UK and thus would a relaxation of Revenue Customs’ rules mean an increase in inward investment and the other positive things that this would bring? Or would a decrease in tax rates for wealthy investors send the wrong message?

In a time of austerity, tax cuts for the rich are never going to be a popular policy – at least not amongst the ‘non-rich’ – in truth, the majority of the population. Furthermore, many simply see tax havens as morally wrong – or as George Osborne put it ‘morally repugnant’. The use of them provides the better off with a means of paying less to the taxman, whilst the worse off continue to pay their share.

The controversy surrounding tax havens is perhaps even more of an issue given the size of the public-sector deficit. With tax havens being used by those who should be paying the most, tax revenues are lower than would be the case without tax evasion and avoidance. Is this adding to the burden of basic rate tax payers?

This doesn’t help the gap between government expenditure and revenue, which has contributed to the largest amount of UK public-sector borrowing in August 2012 since records began. Net borrowing reached £14.4bn, as things like corporation tax receipts fell and benefit payments rose. Money that should go in to the government’s coffers is undoubtedly making its way into tax havens, but does that also mean that jobs are making their way out of the country? If tax rates in the UK were cut, cities such as London may become even more attractive places to invest, which could potentially create a much needed boost for the economy. But, at what cost? The following articles consider the controversy of tax havens.

Microsoft and HP rapped by US Senate over tax havens BBC News (20/9/12)
Morally repugnant tax avoiders can rest easy under David Cameron Guardian, Tanya Gold (21/9/12)
Britain could prevent the use of tax havens by ending ‘archaic’ business rules Telegraph, Rowena Mason (21/9/12)
UK public-sector borrowing hits record high of £14.4bn BBC News (21/9/12)
The top Tory who wants to make Britain a tax haven for millionaires Guardian, Martin Williams and Rajeev Syal (20/9/12)
Make UK a tax haven to attract investment from millionaires, urges Tory treasurer Mail Online, Daniel Martin (21/9/12)
Microsoft saved billions using Irish tax havens Irish Times, Genevieve Carbery (21/9/12)
Microsoft, HP skirted taxes via offshore units: U.S. Senate Panel Reuters, Kim Dixon (21/9/12)
Danny Alexander says tax avoidance ‘adds 2p in every £1 to basic tax rate’ Independent, Oliver Wright (24/6/12)

Questions

  1. What are the key features of tax havens?
  2. Briefly explain the arguments in favour of tax havens and those against. Think about them from all points of view.
  3. Explain the way in which a cut in UK tax rates could create jobs and how the multiplier effect may provide a boost for the UK economy.
  4. If tax rates were cut, how might this affect an individual’s decision to work? What about an individual’s decision to invest? Use indifference analysis to help explain your answer.
  5. How does tax avoidance and evasion affect public sector borrowing? Is there any way a cut in tax rates on foreign investment could improve the government’s finances?
  6. Do you think there is any truth in the argument that the UK is losing out to other countries because of its higher tax rates? Is a reduction in tax rates necessary to help us compete?
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Confused about deficits and debt? Try taking a bath!

In its report A Distorted Debate: the need for clarity on Debt, Deficit and Coalition Aims, the Centre for Policy Studies claims that the public is confused by economic terminology surrounding the government’s finances. We try and understand this confusion and offer a bath-time solution!

In a survey conducted for the Centre for Policy Studies only 10 per cent of Britons knew that despite cuts to parts of the government’s spending plans, the stock of public sector debt (also known as the national debt) is expected to rise by a further £60 billion by 2015. Rather, 47 per cent of respondents thought that debt would have fallen by this amount.

The confusion is not terribly surprising because there are two important core economic concepts that can confuse: stocks and flows. To try to help we will show how reference to a bath tub can hopefully eliminate the confusion. However, first, let us considerthe Coalition government’s principal fiscal objective. Its so-called fiscal mandate is for the cyclically-adjusted current budget to be in balance by 2015/16. In simple terms, the government wants to be able afford its day-to-day expenditures by this date, after taking into account where the economy is in the business cycle. In other words, if the economy’s output was at its sustainable or potential level in 2015-16 the government should be able to raise sufficient taxes to meet what it refers to as current expenditures. This would still allow the government to borrow to fund investment expenditure, e.g. infrastructural projects, which are enjoyed or consumed over a period of time.

An important thing to note about the fiscal mandate is that the government can expect to need to borrow money in order to afford its current expenditures up to 2015/16. Even beyond this date, assuming that the mandate can be met, it is likely to need money to afford capital expenditures. This is where we introduce the bath tub. Think of government spending as water coming through the bath taps while the taxes that government collect are water leaving through the plug hole. Therefore, spending and tax receipts are flows. If the water pouring into the bath (spending) is greater than the water leaving the bath (tax receipts), the level of water in the bath will rise. You can think of the water level in the bath as the stock of national debt. Therefore, if government is spending more than it receives it needs to borrow money. Borrowing is therefore a flow concept too. As it borrows, the stock of debt (the amount of water in our bath tub) rises.

So we know that government will continue to borrow in the near future. What it is hoping to be able to do, year by year, is begin to borrow less. It wants the deficit to fall. Then, if it can meet its target, it will at least be able to afford current expenditure (after adjustment for where the economy is in the cycle) by 2015/16. As the deficit begins to decline then the stock of debt will rise less quickly. But, the bath tub will continue to fill because more is flowing through the taps than is leaving through the plug hole. However, it will fill less quickly.

What our use of the bath tub analogy demonstrates is the confusion that can be caused when economic terminology is misused. It is important that the terms debt and deficit be used carefully and correctly. Therefore, the next time you are sitting in bath see if you can be the next Chancellor by understanding these key economic concepts.

Don’t know your debts from your deficit? You’re not alone Independent, Andrew Johnson (27/8/12)
Government unlikely to meet deficit targets, warns CPS Telegraph (27/8/12)
Coalition ‘most unlikely’ to meet key economic goals by next election Guardian, Andrew Sparrow (27/8/12)
Public ‘don’t know their debt from their deficit’ Public Finance, Vivienne Russell (28/8/12)
George Osborne ‘still failing to stop rising deficit’ Daily Express (28/8/12)

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between the concepts of government deficits and government debt?
  2. Explain what will happen to both the size of the government’s deficit and to its stock of debt if borrowing begins to decline.
  3. Can the stock of government debt fall if the government continues to borrow? Can the ratio of the stock of government debt fall relative to GDP (i.e. Debt/GDP), if government continues to borrow?
  4. With examples, explain the differences between the government’s current and investment (capital) expenditures.
  5. What are the economic arguments for trying to cut the deficit quickly or more slowly?
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