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Posts Tagged ‘Office for Budget Responsibility’

UK low productivity growth – even worse than thought

In various blogs, we’ve looked at the UK’s low productivity growth, both relative to other countries and relative to the pre-1998 financial crisis (see, for example, The UK productivity puzzle and Productivity should we be optimistic?). Productivity is what drives long-term economic growth as it determines potential GDP. If long-term growth is seen as desirable, then a fall in productivity represents a serious economic problem.

Recent data suggest that the problem, if anything, is worse than previously thought and does not seem to be getting better. Productivity is now some 21% below what it would have been had productivity growth continued at the rate experienced in the years before the financial crisis (see second chart below).

In its latest productivity statistics, the ONS reports that labour productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) fell by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2017. This follows a fall of 0.5% in quarter 1. Over the whole year to 2017 Q2, productivity fell by 0.3%.

Most other major developed countries have much higher productivity than the UK. In 2016, Italy’s productivity was 9.9% higher than the UK’s; the USA’s was 27.9%, France’s was 28.7% and Germany’s was 34.5% higher. What is more, their productivity has grown faster (see chart).

But what of the future? The Office for Budget responsibility publishes forecasts for productivity growth, but has consistently overestimated it. After predicting several times in the past that UK productivity growth would rise towards its pre-financial crisis trend of around 2% per year, in its October 2017 Forecast evaluation Report it recognises that this was too optimisitic and revises downwards its forecasts for productivity growth for 2017 and beyond.

As the period of historically weak productivity growth lengthens, it seems less plausible to assume that potential and actual productivity growth will recover over the medium term to the extent assumed in our most recent forecasts. Over the past five years, growth in output per hour has averaged 0.2 per cent. This looks set to be a better guide to productivity growth in 2017 than our March forecast of 1.6 per cent.

Looking further ahead, it no longer seems central to assume that productivity growth will recover to the 1.8 per cent we assumed in March 2017 within five years.

But why has productivity growth not returned to pre-crisis levels? There are five possible explanations.

The first is that there has been labour hoarding. But with companies hiring more workers, this is unlikely still to be true for most employers.

The second is that very low interest rates have allowed some low-productivity companies to survive, which might otherwise have been driven out of business.

The third is a reluctance of banks to lend for investment. After the financial crisis this was driven by the need for them to repair their balance sheets. Today, it may simply be greater risk aversion than before the financial crisis, especially with the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.

The fourth is a fall in firms’ desire to invest. Although investment has recovered somewhat from the years directly following the financial crisis, it is still lower than might be expected in an economy that is no longer is recession. Indeed, there has been a much slower investment recovery than occurred after previous recessions.

The fifth is greater flexibility in the labour market, which has subdued wages and has allowed firms to respond to higher demand by taking on more relatively low-productivity workers rather than having to invest in human capital or technology.

Whatever the explanation, the solution is for more investment in both technology and in physical and human capital, whether by the private or the public sector. The question is how to stimulate such investment.

Articles
UK productivity lagging well behind G7 peers – ONS Financial Times, Katie Martin (6/10/17)
UK productivity sees further fall BBC News (6/10/17)
UK resigned to endless productivity gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (10/10/17)
UK productivity estimates must be ‘significantly’ lowered, admits OBR The Guardian, Richard Partington and Phillip Inman (10/10/17)
UK productivity growth to remain sluggish, says OBR BBC News (10/10/17)
Official Treasury forecaster slashes UK productivity growth forecast, signalling hole in public finances for November Budget Independent, Ben Chu (10/10/17)
The Guardian view on Britain’s productive forces: they are not working The Guardian, Editorial (10/10/17)
Mind the productivity gap: the story behind sluggish earnings The Telegraph, Anna Isaac (26/10/17)

Data and statistical analysis
Labour productivity: April to June 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (6/10/17)
International comparisons of productivity ONS Dataset (6/10/17)
Forecast evaluation report OBR (October 2017)

Questions

  1. Explain the relationship between labour productivity and potential GDP.
  2. What is the relationship between actual growth in GDP and labour productivity?
  3. Why does the UK lag France and Germany more in output per hour than in output per worker, but the USA more in output per worker than in output per hour?
  4. Is there anything about the UK system of financing investment that results in lower investment than in other developed countries?
  5. Why are firms reluctant to invest?
  6. In what ways could public investment increase productivity?
  7. What measures would you recommend to encourage greater investment and why?
  8. How do expectations affect the growth in labour productivity?
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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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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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Little cheer in forecasts for consumer spending

A crucial determinant of the economy’s short-term prospects is the appetite of households for spending. This is because household spending makes up roughly two-thirds of the total demand for firms’ goods and services or two-thirds of what economists refer to as aggregate demand. So what are the latest forecasts for consumer spending? We briefly consider the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility for consumer spending and, in doing so, update an earlier bog Gloomy prospects for spending in 2012?

In its March 2012 Economic and Fiscal Outlook the Office for Budget Responsibility presents it forecasts for economic growth and household spending. The following table summarises these forecasts.

OBR Forecasts (annual real percentage change)

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
GDP 0.8 2.0 2.7 3.0 3.0
Consumption 0.5 1.3 2.3 3.0 3.0
Disposable income –0.2   0.5 1.9 2.4 2.5

Source: Economic and Fiscal Outlook (Table 3.6) (Office for Budget Responsibility)

The OBR are forecasting that household spending will increase in real terms in 2012 by 0.5 per cent and by a further 1.3 per cent in 2013. This is on the back of a fall in real consumption in 2011 of 1.2 per cent. Therefore, the rebound in consumer spending is predicted to be only fairly modest. The long-term average annual real increase in household spending is around 2½ per cent.

The drag on consumer spending growth remains the weakness of growth in real disposable income. The post-tax income of the household sector fell in real terms by 1.2 per cent in 2011 and is expected to fall by a further 0.2 per cent in 2012. It is not until 2015 that growth in real disposable income returns to its long-term average which, unsurprisingly, is roughly the same as that of household sector spending.

As we noted in our earlier blog, the OBR’s short-term figures on spending growth critically depend on the ability of households to absorb the negative shocks to their real income. Empirical evidence tends to show that household spending growth is less variable than that in income and that households try and smooth, if they can, their spending. Therefore, the marginal propensity of households to consume out of changes in their income is below 1 in the short-run. This is consistent with the idea that households are consumption-smoothers disliking excessively volatile spending patterns.

The actual figures for consumption and income growth in 2011 help to show that consumption-smoothing cannot be taken for granted. In 2011, the fall in consumption exactly matched that in income. An important impediment to consumption-smoothing in recent times has been the impact of the financial crisis on bank lending. Banks have become more cautious in their lending and so households have been less able to borrow to support their spending in the face of falling real incomes. Another impediment to consumption-smoothing is likely to be the continuing unease amongst households to borrow (assuming they can) or to draw too heavily on their savings. In uncertain times, households may feel the need for a larger buffer stock of wealth to act as a security blanket.

In short, the latest OBR figures suggest that the growth in consumption in the medium-term will remain relatively weak. Retailers are likely to ‘feel the pinch’ for some time to come.

Articles
OBR raises forecast for economic growth Financial Times, Chris Giles (19/03/12)
Threat of recession receding but economy still at risk, says OBR Guardian, Katie Allen (21/3/12)
Punch Tavern sees profits slump 19pc Telegraph, Natalie Thomas (12/4/12)
U.K. Consumer spending slows as fuel prices climb, Times says Bloomberg, Agnieszka Troszkiewicz (7/4/12) )
Uk retail sales warmed by sunny weather in March BBC News (11/4/12)
Budget 2012: George Osborne raises UK growth forecast BBC News (21/4/12)

Data
Quarterly National Accounts, time series dataset Q4 2011 Office for National Statistics (see consumption series ABJR and HAYO in Table C2; disposable income series NRJR in Table J2 and GDP series ABMI in Table A2).

Questions

  1. Compare the consumption forecasts produced by the Office for Budget Responsibility in March 2012 with those it produced in November 2011. To see the earlier forecasts go to Gloomy prospects for spending in 2012?
  2. What do you understand by a consumption function? What variables would you include in such a function?
  3. Using the figures in the table in the text above, calculate ‘rough’ estimates of the income elasticity of consumption for each year. Why are these estimates only ‘rough’ approximations of the income elasticity of consumer spending?
  4. Draw up a list of factors that are likely to affect the strength of consumer spending in 2012. Explain how similar or different these factors are likely to have been to those that may affect spending during periods of strong economic growth.
  5. Explain what you understand by the term consumption-smoothing. Explore how households can smooth their spending and the factors that are likely to both help and prevent them from doing so.
  6. What do you understand by the net worth of households? Try drawing up a list of factors that could affect the net worth of households and then analyse how they might affect consumer spending.
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Gloomy prospects for UK consumer spending in 2012?

A key determinant of our economy’s rate of growth over the year ahead is likely to be the behaviour of households and, in particular, the rate of growth in consumer (or household) spending. In other words, your appetite for spending will help to determine how quickly the economy grows. The importance of household spending for the economy is straightforward to understand given that it accounts for roughly two-thirds of the total demand for firms’ goods and services, i.e. two-thirds of aggregate demand. In its November 2011 Economic and Fiscal Outlook the Office for Budget Responsibility presents it forecasts for economic growth and household spending. The following table summarises these forecasts.

OBR Forecasts (annual real percentage change)

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
GDP 0.9 0.7 2.1 2.7 3.0 3.0
Consumption –1.1 0.2 1.2 2.2 2.7 2.9
Disposable income –2.3 –0.3 0.9 2.0 2.5 2.5

Source: Economic and Fiscal Outlook (Table 3.6) (Office for Budget Responsibility)

The OBR are forecasting that household spending will fall in real terms in 2011 by 1.1 per cent and grow by only 0.2 per cent in 2012. This is not good news for retailers nor, of course, for the economy. The drag on consumer spending growth is largely attributed to expected falls in real disposable (after-tax) incomes in both 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the household sector’s real income is forecast to decline by 2.3 per cent and then by a further 0.3 per cent in 2012.

The OBR’s figures on spending growth critically depend on the ability of households to absorb the negative shock to their real income. Empirical evidence tends to show that household spending growth is less variable than that in income and that households try and smooth, if they can, their spending. This means that the marginal propensity of households to consume out of changes to their income is below 1 in the short-run. In fact, the shorter the period of time over which we analyse income and consumption changes the smaller the consumption responses become. This is consistent with the idea that households are consumption-smoothers disliking excessively volatile spending patterns. In other words, the size of our monthly shop will usually vary less than any changes in our real income.

Of course, consumption-smoothing cannot be taken for granted. Households need the means to be able to smooth their spending given volatile and, in the current context, declining real incomes. Some economic theorists point to the importance of the financial system in enabling households to smooth their spending. In effect, households move their resources across time so that their current spending is not constrained solely by the income available to them in the current time period. This could mean in the face of falling real income perhaps borrowing against future incomes (moving forward in time expected incomes) or drawing down past savings.

The ability of households to move future incomes forward to the present has probably been impaired by the financial crisis. Banks are inevitably less cautious in their lending and therefore households are unable to borrow as much and so consume large amounts of future income today. In other words, households are credit-constrained. Furthermore, it is likely that households are somewhat uneasy about borrowing in the current climate, certainly any substantial amounts. Uncertainty tends to increase the stock of net worth a household would like to hold. A household’s net worth is the value of its stock of physical assets (largely housing wealth) and financial assets (savings) less its financial liabilities (debt). If households feel the need for a larger buffer stock of wealth to act as a sort of security blanket, they will not rush to acquire more debt (even if they could) or to draw down their savings.

The impairment of the financial system and the need for a buffer stock are two impediments to households smoothing their spending. They tend to make consumption more sensitive to income changes and so with falling incomes make it more likely that consumption will fall too. There are other related concerns too about the ability and willingness of consumers to smooth spending. Uncertainty arising from the volatility of the financial markets imposes liquidity constraints because households become less sure about the value of those savings products linked to the performance of equity markets. Consequently, they become less certain about the money (liquidity) that could be raised by cashing-in such products and so are more cautious about spending. Similarly, the falls in house prices have reduced the ability of households to extract housing equity to support spending. Indeed, with fewer transactions in the housing market the household sector is extracting less housing equity because it has been quite common, at least in the past, for households to over-borrow when moving and use the excess money borrowed to fund spending.

In short, there are many reasons to be cautious about the prospects for household spending. The expected decline in real income again in 2012 will ‘hit’ consumer spending. The question is how big this ‘hit’ will be and crucially on the extent to which households will be able to absorb it and keep spending.

Articles
Household spending frozen says ONS report BBC News (29/11/11)
Families £13 a week worse off Telegraph (10/12/11)
Household spending power shrinks for 22nd month in a row Mirror, Clifton Manning (29/11/11)
Britons inject record £9 bn of housing equity in Q2 BBC News (30/11/11)
UK retail growth weakest since May, says BRC BBC News (6/12/11)

Data
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical releases Bank of England

Questions

  1. What do you understand by a consumption function? What variables would you include in such a function?
  2. Using the figures in the table in the text above, calculate ‘rough’ estimates of the income elasticity of consumption for each year. Why are these estimates only ‘rough’ approximations of the income elasticity of consumer spending?
  3. Draw up a list of factors that are likely to affect the strength of consumer spending in 2012. Explain how similar or different these factors are likely to have been to those that may affect spending during periods of strong economic growth.
  4. Explain what you understand by the term consumption-smoothing. Explore how households can smooth their spending and the factors that are likely to both help and prevent them from doing so.
  5. What do you understand by the net worth of housholds? Try drawing up a list of factors that could affect the net worth of households and then analyse how they might affect consumer spending.
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Government borrowing passes £100 billion-mark after first 8 months of financial year

One of the key economic issues in 2010 has been the state of countries’ public finances. We take one final look this year at the latest state of the UK public finances in light of the latest release of Public Sector Finances from the Office for National Statistics. In doing so we will be updating our blog of 20th November – What’s £81.6 billion and still rising?.

Well, a good place to start is to up-date you on the amount of net borrowing. This is the amount by which public sector expenditure exceeds current receipts, almost entirely taxation revenues. After adjusting for the impact of temporary ‘financial interventions’ or policies to provide stability for the financial system, the amount of net borrowing in November was a record high £23.3 billion. Therefore, the amount of net borrowing since April and so the start of the financial year rose from over £81 billion in October – and the reason for the title of the earlier blog – to £104.4 billion in November. This is roughly the same as in the first eight months of financial year 2009/10 when we had amassed net borrowing of £105.1 billion.

In the first eight months of the last two financial years monthly net borrowing has averaged close on £13 billion. The government’s independent economic forecaster the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) released its Economic and Fiscal Outlook at the end of November. The OBR is forecasting that over the entire financial year the amount of net borrowing will be £148.5 billion or the equivalent of 10% of GDP.

The public-sector current budget balance measures whether the public sector is able to afford its current expenditures. This balance was an important indicator under the previous Labour government of whether it was meeting its Golden Rule whereby over the economic cycle it should be able to its afford current expenditures and any borrowing would be for net investment, i.e. capital expenditures giving rise to a stream of benefits over time. Therefore, the current budget balance compares revenues with current expenditures, including the wages of public sector staff, welfare payments and expenditures on inputs consumed in the current financial year. The public sector’s current budget (excluding financial interventions) was in deficit in November by £20.0 billion.

In the financial year to date, the current budget deficit has reached £83.2 billion almost identical to the total in the previous financial year. This means that the average monthly current budget deficit over the first eight months of the last two financial years has been £10.4 billion. The OBR is forecasting that there will be a deficit on the current budget in 2010-11 of £106.2 billion, the equivalent of 7.2% of GDP

Finally, we update the public-sector net debt total. The public sector’s net debt is its stock of debt less its liquid financial assets (largely foreign exchange reserves and bank deposits). As of the end of November, the stock of net debt (excluding the impact of the financial interventions) stood at £863 billion, equivalent to 58% of GDP. The stock of debt at the end of the last financial year stood at £772 billion, equivalent to 54% of GDP. The OBR expects it to increase to £922.9 or 60.8% by the end of this financial year.

The extent of the increase in the stock of public sector net debt is very clearly illustrated illustrated if we compare the latest numbers with those at the end of 2006/7 and so before the financial crisis really took hold. Back then, the stock of debt stood at £498 billion or 36% of GDP and so the last government was meeting it sustainable investment rule by keeping net debt below 40% of GDP. Both the sustainable investment rule and the golden rule were to be abandoned during 2008 as the financial crisis took grip.

If we add back the impact of the financial interventions, most notably the balance sheet effects of public sector banks, including Northern Rock, then the stock of public sector net debt at the end of November was £971 billion or 65.1% of GDP. This means that the actual stock has almost doubled since March 2007. It is perhaps little surprise that the government is introducing the Bank Levy in 2011 which, in large part, is being designed to acknowledge the external costs that the banking system can cause to the wider economy and, of course, to the public finances.

Articles
Public borrowing soars to £23.3bn record high Independent, Nick Clark (22/12/10)
UK borrowing hits new record high as government spending jumps Telegraph, Emma Rowley (21/12/10)
Government borrowing hits record high Herald, Douglas Hamilton (22/12/10) )
Public borrowing: What the economists are saying Guardian (22/12/10)
Shock as govt borrowing hits record high Sky News, James Sillars (21/11/10)
Record UK borrowing raises concerns Financial Times, Daniel Pimlott (21/12/10)
UK government borrowing hits record high BBC News (21/12/10)
City shocked as government borrowing hits record high Scotsman, Natalie Thomas (22/12/10)

Data on UK Public Finances
Latest on Public Sector Finances Office for National Statistics (21/12/10)
Public Sector Finances Statistical Bulletin, November 2010 Office for National Statistics (21/12/10)
Public Sector Finances (First Release) Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
Statistics on Public Finance and Spending HM Treasury

Questions

  1. Give examples of variables which are stock concepts and those which are flow concepts. Is public sector net borrowing a stock or flow concept? What about public sector net debt?
  2. Give examples of public expenditures which are examples of current expenditures and examples of those which are capital expenditures?
  3. What arguments could you put forward for and against the previous Labour government’s golden rule? What about its sustainable investment rule?
  4. Explain the difference between the current budget balance and net borrowing. Why might governments want to measure both these budget balances?
  5. What arguments would you make for and against a rapid reduction of the level of net borrowing by the UK public sector?
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What’s £81.6 billion and still rising?

So what’s £81.6 billion and still rising? The answer is the UK public-sector budget deficit so far this financial year. Given all the talk over the past week about the state of the Irish public finances it is perhaps timely to review the state of the UK public finances. To do this we take a look at the latest release of public sector finances from the Office for National Statistics. It is worth pointing out that the figures we will refer to take into account the impact of those financial interventions which were designed to ensure the stability of the financial system following the financial crisis. These interventions include the transfer of financial institutions like Northern Rock and HBOS to the public sector, injections of capital into financial institutions and the Asset Protection Scheme whereby institutions insured themselves against losses on assets placed in the scheme. The main impact of these interventions has been on the overall stock of public-sector debt following the incorporation of some financial institutions into the public sector.

We consider three key statistics of the public finances. Firstly, we consider the UK’s level of net borrowing. This is a flow concept measuring the degree to which the public sector’s expenditures exceed its receipts. In October net borrowing was recorded at £10.3 billion and, as we said at the outset, this takes the level of net borrowing so far this financial year (i.e. since April) to £81.6 billion. This compares with £87.5 billion in the same period in 2009. If all these numbers leave you a tad cold then perhaps it may help to note that since the beginning of January 2009 the public sector has been running an average monthly deficit of around £12 billion.

Another widely quoted fiscal indicator is the public-sector current budget. The current budget measures whether the public sector has been able to afford what are known as current expenditures and so net investment by the public sector is excluded from this fiscal indicator. Current expenditures include the wages of public sector staff, such as teachers and nurses, welfare payments and expenditures on a whole range of inputs consumed in the current financial year. Net investment by the public sector adds to our country’s capital stock and includes expenditures on such things as roads and school buildings as well as investment grants to the private sector, for example money to help better insulate our homes.

The public sector’s current budget was in deficit in October to the tune of £7.1 billion. This means that in the current financial year the current budget deficit has reached £64.1 billion which compares with £69.1 billion in the same period last year. Again to put the current budget into perspective we note that since January 2009 the average current budget deficit has been running at just under £8 billion per month.

The third key statistic reported by the ONS is public-sector net debt. This is the value of the sector’s stock of debt less its liquid financial assets (largely foreign exchange reserves and bank deposits). As of the end of October, the stock of net debt (excluding the impact of the financial interventions) stood at £845.8 billion, equivalent to 57.1% of GDP. If we include the impact of the financial interventions then the stock of public sector debt at the end of October was actually £955 billion and so not too far off the £1 trillion-mark. This figure is equivalent to 64.5% of GDP and shows quite clearly the impact of incorporating the balance sheets of those financial institutions now classified as public monetary and financial institutions.

But what about the future prospects for our 3 key indicators of the public finances. The Office for Budget Responsibility central projections at the time of the June Budget predicted that the government’s fiscal consolidation plan will see the current budget in balance across financial year 2015/16. This is expected to come about as the current budget deficit begins falling each year following the current financial year. It is also predicts that if we take into account the negative impact of the economy’s expected negative output gap on the public finances that the structural current budget deficit will have been removed by 2014/15. In other words, any current budget deficit in 2014/15 will be a cyclical deficit resulting from higher expenditure and/or lower receipts because of the economy’s actual output being below its potential output.

Of course, while the OBR is predicting that the actual current budget (i.e. without any adjustment for the cycle) will be in balance by 2015-16, this still means that the public sector will remain a net borrower because there is also net investment expenditure to take into account. Nonetheless, if the forecast is proved correct, this would see net borrowing across the whole of 2015-16 of only £20 billion. As for net debt, the OBR is predicting that it will peak at 70.3% of GDP in 2013-14 before falling to 69.4% by 2014-15.

Articles
U.K. had larger-than-expected budget deficit in October amidst modest growth Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (18/11/10)
UK Oct public sector borrowing rise more than expected International Business Times, (18/11/10)
UK government borrowing at £10.3 billion in October BBC News (18/11/10) )
Deficit target still in sight despite new UK borrowing high Telegraph , Emma Rowley (18/11/10)
UK public sector borrowing rises Sky News, Goldie Momen Putrym (18/11/10)
Britain slumps another £10 billion in the red Independent, Holly Williams (18/11/10)

Data
Latest on Public Sector Finances Office for National Statistics (20/11/10)
Public Sector Finances Statistical Bulletin, October 2010 Office for National Statistics (20/11/10)
Public Sector Finances (First Release) Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
Public Sector Finance Statistics HM Treasury

Questions

  1. What do you understand to be the difference between the concepts of deficits and debt? Illustrate your answer with reference to the public sector and a household’s finances.
  2. What types of public expenditures would be categorised as being current expenditures and what types as capital expenditures?
  3. What is the difference between the current budget and net borrowing? Why might governments want to measure both these budget balances?
  4. Explain what you think is meant by a cyclical deficit and a structural deficit? Can you have cyclical surpluses and structural surpluses?
  5. What is meant by an output gap? What impact would you expect an output gap to have on the public finances?
  6. In 1988/89 the UK ran a budget surplus equivalent to 6.3% of GDP. After cyclically-adjusting this surplus is estimated to have been a deficit with net borrowing equivalent to 1.3% of GDP. Can you explain how this is possible and what the economy’s output gap is likely to have been?
  7. Imagine that you have been asked by government to design either a fiscal rule (or rules) or a set of principles for fiscal policy. What sorts of considerations would you take into account and so what rule or principles, if any, would you suggest?
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Who’d be a forecaster? A taxing time for the new OBR

Under its terms of reference the new Office for Budget Responsibility is required to provide updated forecasts for the economy and the public finances at the time of each Budget in order take into account the impact of those measures contained in the Budget. Here we consider those economic forecasts contained in the June 2010 OBR Budget Forecast relating to economic growth. In particular, we consider the OBR’s interpretation of how growth is likely to be affected by the policy measures unveiled by George Osborne in his first Budget as Chancellor of Exchequer on 22 June.

The OBR forecasts that the UK economy will grow by 1.2% in 2010 and by a further 2.3% in 2011. These estimates are lower than those published by the OBR in its Pre-Budget Forecast published on 14 June. The Pre-Budget Forecasts predicted growth of 1.3% in 2010 and 2.6% in 2011. The downward revisions reflect the OBR’s assertion that the Budget’s measures to meet the Government’s fiscal mandate and, hence the resultant fiscal consolidation package, will weaken aggregate demand.

In terms of the components of aggregate demand, the fiscal consolidation will mean restraints on government spending (G) and, if the OBR is right, lower growth in household consumption (C). Lower consumption growth is expected as a result of reduced growth in household incomes and the rise in the standard rate of Value Added Tax next January from 17½% to 20%.

The OBR now forecasts that real household consumption will grow by just 0.2% in 2010, following last year’s contraction of 3.2%, and by 1.3% in 2011. General government final consumption – the Government’s expenditure on current goods and services – is forecast to grow in real terms by 1.7% this year before falling by 1.1% next year. The forecasts for general government capital spending are for a real fall of 4.9% this year, following last year’s rise of 15.7%, followed by a sizeable 19% decline in 2011.

A more positive note emerging from the OBR forecasts relates to capital expenditure by businesses. The measures to reform corporation tax, which include a reduction in the main rate of corporation tax from 28 per cent to 24 per cent over four years beginning with a one per cent reduction from April 2011, are predicted to have a favourable effect on investment. Business investment is forecast to rise in real terms by 1.4% this year, following last year’s fall of 19.3%, and to rise again in 2011 by 8.1%.

The projections for growth from 2013 are now stronger than in the OBR’s Pre-Budget Forecast with the economy portrayed as adjusting more quickly at this point towards its potential output. Potential output is the level of output level when the economy’s resources are operating at ‘normal capacity utilisation’. But, in 2015, which is at the end of the OBR’s five year forecast period, the UK economy is still forecast to be experiencing a negative output gap. In other words, actual output will still be less than potential output.

To help paint a picture of how the economy’s output will adjust towards its potential level consider the OBR estimates for the output gap. The OBR estimates that in financial year 2009-10 the economy’s output was 4.1% below its potential. This negative output gap is now expected to be reduced to 3.7% of potential output in 2010-11, to 2.8% in 2012-13 and to 0.9% of potential output in 2015-16.

Office for Budget Responsibility
OBR home page
Office for Budget Responsibility Terms of Reference

Documents
Budget Forecast June 2010 OBR (22/6/10)
Pre-Budget Forecast June 2010 OBR (14/6/10)
Budget 2010 HM Treasury (22/6/10)

Articles
OBR endorses Budget but faces questions over its own predictions Telegraph, Philip Alrdrick (23/6/10)
UK growth forecasts could be revised again, says Sir Alan Budd Citywire, Deborah Hyde (23/6/10)
OBR says growth will take bigger hit Financial Times, Norma Cohen (22/6/10)
Budget 2010: Government cuts will slow economic recovery, says watchdog Telegraph, James Kirkup (23/6/10)
Highlights from the Budget BBC News (22/6/10)
Budget statement: George Osborne’s speech in full BBC Democracy Live (22/6/10)

Questions

  1. What do you understand by the concept of aggregate demand?
  2. What are the component expenditures of aggregate demand? Which of these do you think is the largest in value terms?
  3. The OBR is forecasting the household sector’s disposable income to grow in real terms this year by 0.2% and by 1.2% next year. Why then is the OBR identifying weaker consumer demand as a result of the Budget measures as a major reason for revising down its predictions for economic growth?
  4. The OBR argues that the fiscal consolidation measures will have a ‘direct effect’ on household incomes and so on spending, but that this will be ‘partially offset by a decline in saving’. Why might the OBR be arguing that a fiscal consolidation will lead to a decline in saving? Evaluate the OBR’s arguments.
  5. What do you understand by the concept of an output gap? What does a negative output gap signify?
  6. To see the sorts of problems that forecasters commonly face, try identifying reasons why the output gap could be eliminated more quickly or less quickly as a result of the Budget measures.
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Profiting from a new prophet

As one of his first acts, the new UK Coalition government’s Chancellor, George Osborne, set up an independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) (see Nipping it in the Budd: Enhancing fiscal credibility?. The role of the OBR is to provide forecasts of the economy and the data on which to base fiscal policy.

On 14 June, the OBR produced its first forecast in time for the Budget scheduled for 22 June. It has some bad news and some good news. First the bad news: it forecasts that growth for 2011 will be 2.6% – down from the 3–3.5% forecast by Labour in its last Budget in March. But now the good: it forecasts that the public-sector deficit in 2010/11 will be 10.5% of GDP – down from the 11.1% forecast by Labour; and that public-sector debt will be 62.2%, not the 63.6% forecast by Labour. These forecasts are before any policy changes announced in the Budget on 22 June.

Meanwhile, the accountants BDO have published a survey of business confidence. This shows the largest drop since the survey began. Talk by the government of cuts and worries that this will impact directly on the private sector have caused many businesses to cut investment plans. The worries are compounded by fears of a decline in export demand as countries abroad also make cuts.

So what does the future hold? Should we put any faith in forecasts? And should we be more worried about a double-dip recession or by failure to make sufficient inroads to deficits to calm markets?

Articles
Growth forecast is cut but borrowing improves Guardian, Phillip Inman and Hélène Mulholland (14/6/10)
UK watchdog slashes growth forecasts Financial Times, Chris Giles (14/6/10)
Fiscal watchdog downgrades UK growth forecast BBC News (14/6/10)
OBR UK growth forecast downgraded BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (14/6/10)
‘Sorry it is so complicated’ BBC Daily Politics, Stephanie Flanders (14/6/10)
Britain’s new economic forecasts: what the analysts say Guardian (14/6/10)
Spending cuts under fire amid new borrowing forecasts Independent, Russell Lynch (14/6/10)
The self-fulfilling deficit spiral Guardian, Adam Lent (14/6/10)
UK business confidence sees ‘record drop’ BBC News (13/6/10)
Britain to avoid double dip but recovery will be weak, CBI warns Independent, David Prosser (14/6/10)
A winding path to inflation The Economist (3/6/10)
Is inflation or deflation a greater threat to the world economy? The Economist: debate (1/6/10)
A question for chancellor Osborne Financial Times, Martin Wolf (11/6/10)
Fiscal conservatism may be good for one nation, but threatens collective disaster Independent, Joseph Stiglitz (15/6/10)
Hawks v doves: economists square up over Osborne’s cuts Guardian, Phillip Inman (14/6/10)

Data and forecasts
Pre-Budget forecast Office for Budget Responsibility (14/6/10)
Pre-Budget Report data Google docs (14/6/10)
Forecast for the UK economy: a comparison of independent forecasts HM Treasury (May 2010)

Questions

  1. How reliable is the OBR’s forecast likely to be? What factors could cause the forecast for economic growth to be (a) an overestimate; (b) an underestimate?
  2. What is likely to happen to aggregate demand over the coming months? Explain.
  3. What is meant by the ‘structural deficit’. Why might the structural deficit fall as the economy recovers? Would you explain this in terms of a shift or a movement along the short-term aggregate supply curve?
  4. Which is the greatest threat over the long term: inflation or deflation?
  5. Do you agree that the debate about cutting the deficit is merely a question of timing, not of the amount to cut?
  6. Why may policies of fiscal tightening, if carried out generally around the world, involve the fallacy of composition?
  7. Is there any common ground between the fiscal ‘hawks’ and fiscal ‘doves’ (see the last Guardian article above)?
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Nipping it in the Budd: Enhancing fiscal credibility?

In our blog article IMF warns of the long-term need for fiscal consolidation we highlighted the concerns that the IMF had about the size of public debt-to-GDP ratios in those countries with weak fiscal credibility. Since 1997 the UK has undertaken a series of measures designed to enhance the credibility of fiscal policy and, in particular, to dispel the notion that fiscal policy is unduly sensitive to political needs. Firstly, we have seen the introduction of a Code for Fiscal Stability which outlines a series of principles which should underpin fiscal policy measures. Secondly, in response to the worsening state of the public finances, we have seen the introduction of a Fiscal Responsibility Act which requires governments to outline plans for delivering sound public finances and places a duty on them to deliver them.

The new UK coalition government is now introducing a new independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) which will have responsibility for assessing the public finances and the economy, including the generation of forecasts, and for assessing the public-sector balance sheets (i.e. the sector’s assets and liabilities). The OBR will begin its work immediately in readiness for an ‘emergency Budget’ on the 22nd June. According to the HM Treasury press release on 17 May the OBR will be headed by Sir Alan Budd, an economist who was a founder member of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England. Sir Alan will head a 3-member Budget Responsibility Committee (BRC) which will be supported by economists and public finance experts currently working in HM Treasury, but who in the longer-term will redeployed from the Treasury. Legislation will be drawn up in order to establish the OBR on a permanent statutory basis.

In arguing the case for the OBR, the government points out that all Budget forecasts since 2000 of public borrowing for more than ‘1 year ahead’ have underestimated borrowing. For instance, the average error for ‘2 year ahead’ forecasts since 2000 is £29.5 billion, i.e. borrowing for the financial year after next has, on average, turned out to be £29.5 billion higher than predicted. Of course, we would expect shorter-term forecasts to be more accurate. The evidence presented shows the average error for ‘1 year ahead’ forecasts since 2000 to be £6 billion, i.e. actual borrowing in the following financial year has, on average, been £6 billion higher than forecast. But, more than this, since 2000 four Budgets – those in 2000, 2006, 2007 and 2009 – have produced ’1 year ahead’ forecasts that over-predicted levels of borrowing.

While it will certainly be fascinating in the years ahead to assess the accuracy of the OBR’s own crystal ball in forecasting, the creation of the OBR is undoubtedly an interesting development in the way in which fiscal policy is both designed and implemented in the UK.

HM Treasury Press Notice
Chancellor announces policies to enhance fiscal credibility HM Treasury (17/5/10)

Articles
Osborne braced for cuts Financial Times, Lionel Barber, George Parker and Chris Giles (17/5/10)
Chancellor launches audit of government spending Independent, Andrew Woodcock (17/5/10)
Osborne gives up power to forecast Financial Times, Chris Giles (17/5/10)
Why the Office for Budget Responsibility Matters BBC News blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (17/5/10)
Osborne confirms new U.K. budget watch dog MarketWatch, William L Watts (17/5/10)
Osborne warns of ‘disastrous consequences’ for economy BBC News, Ben Wright (17/5/10)
Chancellor announces new fiscal watchdog BBC News (17/5/10)
Robert Chote on new OBR BBC Daily Politics, Robert Chote (17/5/10)
George Osborne discovers the joys of kitchen-sinking Telegraph, Tracey Corrigan (17/5/10)
George Osborne tackles Labour’s toxic handover Guardian,
Larry Elliott (17/5/10)
Mixed reaction to Office for Budget Responsibility Public Finance, Jaimie Kaffash (17/5/10)

Questions

  1. What do you understand by the concept of fiscal credibility?
  2. How important do you think the new OBR will be in enhancing the UK’s fiscal credibility?
  3. In what other ways have UK governments attempted to enhance the UK’s fiscal credibility in recent years?
  4. What do you see as the potential economic benefits of enhancing fiscal credibility?
  5. One of the first things that the incoming Labour Chancellor, Gordon Brown, did in 1997 was to make the Bank of England independent and create a Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) to set interest rates. What parallels do you see between the MPC and the newly created Budget Responsibility Committee (BRC)?
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