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Posts Tagged ‘output gap’

Relaxing the inflation target

The Bank of England’s monetary policy is aimed at achieving an inflation rate of 2% CPI inflation ‘within a reasonable time period’, typically within 24 months. But speaking in Nottingham in one of the ‘Future Forum‘ events on 14 October, the Bank’s Governor, Mark Carney, said that the Bank would be willing to accept inflation above the target in order to protect growth in the economy.

“We’re willing to tolerate a bit of an overshoot in inflation over the course of the next few years in order to avoid rising unemployment, to cushion the blow and make sure the economy can adjust as well as possible.”

But why should the Bank be willing to relax its target – a target set by the government? In practice, a temporary rise above 2% can still be consistent with the target if inflation is predicted to return to 2% within ‘a reasonable time period’.

But if even if the forecast rate of inflation were above 2% in two years’ time, there would still be some logic in the Bank not tightening monetary policy – by raising Bank Rate or ending, or even reversing, quantitative easing. This would be the case when there was, or forecast to be, stagflation, whether actual or as a result of monetary policy.

The aim of an inflation target of 2% is to help create a growth in aggregate demand consistent with the economy operating with a zero output gap: i.e. with no excess or deficient demand. But when inflation is caused by rising costs, such as that caused by a depreciation in the exchange rate, inflation could still rise even though the output gap were negative.

A rise in interest rates in these circumstances could cause the negative output gap to widen. The economy could slip into stagflation: rising prices and falling output. Hopefully, if the exchange rate stopped falling, inflation would fall back once the effects of the lower exchange rate had fed through. But that might take longer than 24 months or a ‘reasonable period of time’.

So even if not raising interest rates in a situation of stagflation where the inflation rate is forecast to be above 2% in 24 months’ time is not in the ‘letter’ of the policy, it is within the ‘spirit’.

But what of exchange rates? Mark Carney also said that “Our job is not to target the exchange rate, our job is to target inflation. But that doesn’t mean we’re indifferent to the level of sterling. It does matter, ultimately, for inflation and over the course of two to three years out. So it matters to the conduct of monetary policy.”

But not tightening monetary policy if inflation is forecast to go above 2% could cause the exchange rate to fall further. It seems as if trying to arrest the fall in sterling and prevent a fall into recession are conflicting aims when the policy instrument for both is the rate of interest.

Articles
BoE’s Carney says not indifferent to sterling level, boosts pound Reuters, Andy Bruce and Peter Hobson (14/10/16)
Bank governor Mark Carney says inflation will rise BBC News, Kamal Ahmed (14/10/16)
Stagflation Risk May Mean Carney Has Little Love for Marmite Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy (14/10/16)
Bank can ‘let inflation go a bit’ to protect economy from Brexit, says Carney – but sterling will be a factor for interest rates This is Money, Adrian Lowery (14/10/16)
UK gilt yields soar on ‘hard Brexit’ and inflation fears Financial Times, Michael Mackenzie and Mehreen Khan (14/10/16)
Brexit latest: Life will ‘get difficult’ for the poor due to inflation says Mark Carney Independent, Ben Chu (14/10/16)
Prices to continue rising, warns Bank of England governor The Guardian, Katie Allen (14/10/16)

Bank of England
Monetary Policy Bank of England
Monetary Policy Framework Bank of England
How does monetary policy work? Bank of England
Future Forum 2016 Bank of England

Questions

  1. Explain the difference between cost-push and demand-pull inflation.
  2. If inflation rises as a result of rising costs, what can we say about the rate of increase in these costs? Is it likely that cost-push inflation would persist beyond the effects of a supply-side shock working through the economy?
  3. Can interest rates be used to control both inflation and the exchange rate? Explain why or why not.
  4. What is the possible role of fiscal policy in the current situation of a falling exchange rate and rising inflation?
  5. Why does the Bank of England target the rate of inflation in 24 months’ time and not the rate today? (After all, the Governor has to write a letter to the Chancellor explaining why inflation in any month is more than 1 percentage point above or below the target of 2%.)
  6. What is meant by a zero output gap? Is this the same as a situation of (a) full employment, (b) operating at full capacity? Explain.
  7. Why have UK gilt yields soared in the light of a possible ‘hard Brexit’, a falling exchange rate and rising inflation?
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Deficit plans: clear or vague?

In their manifestos, the parties standing for the UK general election on May 7th state their plans for fiscal policy and, more specifically, for reducing public-sector net borrowing and public-sector net debt. The degree of detail in the plans varies, especially with regards to where cuts will be made, but there are nevertheless some very clear differences between the parties.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has examined the public finance plans of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and SNP and has published a briefing note (see link below) and an accompanying press release. It accuses all four parties’ plans of being short on detail over specific cuts (especially the Conservatives), and over borrowing requirements (especially Labour):

None of these parties has provided anything like full details of their fiscal plans for each year of the coming parliament, leaving the electorate somewhat in the dark as to both the scale and composition of likely spending cuts and tax increases. In our analysis we have used the information provided in each manifesto, plus in some cases some necessary assumptions, to shed light on the four parties’ plans.

But despite the lack of detail, the IFS claims that there are big differences in the parties’ plans. These are illustrated in the following three charts from the IFS Briefing Note.



According to Carl Emmerson, IFS deputy director:

“There are genuinely big differences between the main parties’ fiscal plans. The electorate has a real choice, although it can at best see only the broad outlines of that choice. Conservative plans involve a significantly larger reduction in borrowing and debt than Labour plans. But they are predicated on substantial and almost entirely unspecified spending cuts and tax increases. While Labour has been considerably less clear about its overall fiscal ambitions its stated position appears to be consistent with little in the way of further spending cuts after this year”.

So what would be the implications of the plans of the various parties for fiscal policy and what, in turn, would be the implications for economic growth and investment? The various videos and articles look at the briefing note and at what is missing from the parties’ plans.

Videos
Voters ‘in the dark’ over budgets BBC News, Robert Peston (23/4/15)
Election 2015: Main parties respond to IFS deficit claims BBC News, James Landale (23/4/15)
Election 2015: ‘Not enough detail’ on deficit cut plans, says IFS BBC News, Paul Johnson (23/4/15)
IFS: Electorate ‘left in the dark’ by political parties ITV News, Chris Ship (23/4/15)
Voters Left In Dark Over Spending Cuts, Says IFS Sky News (23/4/15)
Post-election austerity: parties’ plans compared Institute for Fiscal Studies, Press Briefing (23/5/15)

Articles
IFS: election choice is stark Economia, Oliver Griffin (23/4/15)
Election 2015: Voters ‘left in the dark’, says IFS BBC News (23/4/15)
The huge choice for voters BBC News, Robert Peston (23/4/15)
IFS manifesto analysis: fantasy island of Tory deficit reduction plan The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/4/15)
Tories have £30bn black hole in spending plans, says IFS The Guardian, Heather Stewart (23/4/15)
Ed Miliband will leave Britain an extra £90bn in debt, IFS finds The Telegraph, Steven Swinford (23/4/15)
IFS despairs as it finds no party’s imaginary numbers add up The Guardian, John Crace (23/4/15)
Reality Check: Why should we trust the IFS? BBC News, Sebastian Chrispin (23/4/15)
IFS: Households can expect lower incomes, whoever wins the election BBC News, Brian Milligan (28/4/15)

Briefing Notes
Post-election Austerity: Parties’ Plans Compared Institute for Fiscal Studies, Briefing Note BN170, Rowena Crawford, Carl Emmerson, Soumaya Keynes and Gemma Tetlow (April 15)
Taxes and Benefits: The Parties’ Plans Institute for Fiscal Studies, Briefing Notw BN 172, Stuart Adam, James Browne, Carl Emmerson, Andrew Hood, Paul Johnson, Robert Joyce, Helen Miller, David Phillips, Thomas Pope and Barra Roantree (April 2015)

Questions

  1. What detail is missing about cuts in the Conservative plans?
  2. What detail is missing in the Labour plans on borrowing requirements?
  3. How do (a) the Liberal Democrat plans and (b) the SNP plans differ from Conservative and Labour plans?
  4. Find out the public finances plans of (a) the Green Party; (b) UKIP; and (c) Plaid Cymru. How different are these plans from those of other parties?
  5. Define ‘austerity’.
  6. How would a tightening of fiscal policy affect economic growth (a) in the short term; (b) in the long term?
  7. How would an expansion of the economy affect the budget balance through automatic fiscal stabilisers?
  8. What is meant by the structural deficit? How could this be reduced?
  9. Would the structural deficit be affected by austerity policies and the resulting size of the output gap, or is it independent of such policies? Explain.
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Deficiency of demand: a global problem

The first link below is to an excellent article by Noriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Roubini was one of the few economists to predict the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. In this article he looks at the current problem of substantial deficiency of demand: in other words, where actual output is well below potential output (a negative output gap). It is no wonder, he argues, that in these circumstances central banks around the world are using unconventional monetary policies, such as virtually zero interest rates and quantitative easing (QE).

He analyses the causes of deficiency of demand, citing banks having to repair their balance sheets, governments seeking to reduce their deficits, attempts by firms to cut costs, effects of previous investment in commodity production and rising inequality.

The second link is to an article about the prediction by the eminent fund manager, Crispin Odey, that central banks are running out of options and that the problem of over-supply will lead to a global slump and a stock market crash that will be ‘remembered in a hundred years’. Odey, like Roubini, successfully predicted the 2008 financial crisis. Today he argues that the looming ‘down cycle will cause a great deal of damage, precisely because it will happen despite the efforts of central banks to thwart it.’

I’m sorry to post this pessimistic blog and you can find other forecasters who argue that QE by the ECB will be just what is needed to stimulate economic growth in the eurozone and allow it to follow the USA and the UK into recovery. That’s the trouble with economic forecasting. Forecasts can vary enormously depending on assumptions about variables, such as future policy measures, consumer and business confidence, and political events that themselves are extremely hard to predict.

Will central banks continue to deploy QE if the global economy does falter? Will governments heed the advice of the IMF and others to ease up on deficit reduction and engage in a substantial programme of infrastructure investment? Who knows?

An Unconventional Truth Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/2/15)
UK fund manager predicts stock market plunge during next recession The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (30/1/15)

Questions

  1. Explain each of the types of unconventional monetary policy identified by Roubini.
  2. How has a policy of deleveraging by banks affected the impact of quantitative easing on aggregate demand?
  3. Assume you predict that global economic growth will increase over the next two years. What reasons might you give for your prediction?
  4. Why have most commodity prices fallen in recent months? (In the second half of 2014, the IMF all-commodity price index fell by 28%.)
  5. What is likely to be the impact of falling commodity prices on global demand?
  6. Some neo-liberal economists had predicted that central bank policies ‘would lead to hyperinflation, the US dollar’s collapse, sky-high gold prices, and the eventual demise of fiat currencies at the hands of digital krypto-currency counterparts’. Why, according to Roubini, did the ‘root of their error lie in their confusion of cause and effect’?
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The MPC – looking for a remit (Part 2: new forward guidance)

With the publication of the February 2014 Inflation Report the Bank of England has adjusted its forward guidance to the markets.

As we saw in Part 1 of this blog, the economy should soon fall below the 7% unemployment threshold adopted in the original forward guidance issued last August. But the Bank feels that there is still too much slack in the economy to raise interest rates when unemployment does fall below 7%.

The Bank has thus issued a new vaguer form of forward guidance.

The MPC’s view is that the economy currently has spare capacity equivalent to about 1%–1½% of GDP, concentrated in the labour market. Around half of that slack reflects the difference between the current unemployment rate of 7.1% and an estimate of its
medium-term equilibrium rate of 6%–6½%. The remaining slack largely reflects a judgement that employees would like to work more hours than is currently the case. Companies appear to be operating at close to normal levels of capacity, although this is subject to some uncertainty.

The existence of spare capacity in the economy is both wasteful and increases the risk that inflation will undershoot the target in the medium term. Moreover, recent developments in inflation mean that the near-term trade-off between keeping inflation close to the target and supporting output and employment is more favourable than at the time the MPC announced its guidance last August: CPI inflation has fallen back to the 2% target more quickly than anticipated and, with domestic costs well contained, is expected to remain at, or a little below, the target for the next few years. The MPC therefore judges that there remains scope to absorb spare capacity further before raising Bank Rate.

Just what will determine the timing and pace of tightening? The Bank identifies three factors: the sustainability of the recovery; the extent to which supply responds to demand; and the evolution of cost and price pressures. But there is considerable uncertainty about all of these.

Thus although this updated forward guidance suggests that interest rates will not be raised for some time to come, even when unemployment falls below 7%, it is not at all clear when a rise in Bank Rate is likely to be, and then how quickly and by how much Bank Rate will be raised over subsequent months. Partly this is because of the inevitable uncertainty about future developments in the economy, but partly this is because it is not clear just how the MPC will interpret developments.

So is this new vaguer forward guidance helpful? The following articles address this question.

Articles
Bank of England Governor Carney’s statement on forward guidance Reuters (12/2/14)
Why has Mark Carney tweaked forward guidance? The Telegraph, Denise Roland (12/2/14)
Interest rates: Carney rips up ‘forward guidance’ policy Channel 4 News (12/2/14)
Forward guidance version 2: will the public believe it? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (12/2/14)
Mark Carney adjusts Bank interest rate policy BBC News (12/2/14)
Mark Carney’s almost promise on rates BBC News, Robert Peston (12/2/14)
Did the Bank of England’s Forward Guidance work? Independent, Ben Chu (2/2/14)
Forward Guidance 2.0: Is Carney just digging with a larger shovel? Market Watch, The Tell (12/2/14)
The U.K. Economy: Five Key Takeaways Wall Street Journal, Alen Mattich (12/2/14)

Bank of England pages
Inflation Report, February 2014 Bank of England (12/2/14)
Monetary Policy Bank of England
MPC Remit Letters Bank of England
Forward Guidance Bank of England

Questions

  1. Summarize the new forward guidance given by the Bank of England.
  2. Why is credibility an important requirement for policy?
  3. What data would you need to have in order to identify the degree of economic slack in the economy?
  4. Why is it difficult to obtain such data – at least in a reliable form?
  5. What is meant by the ‘output gap’? Would it be a good idea to target the output gap?
  6. Is it possible to target the rate of inflation and one or more other indicators at the same time? Explain.
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The MPC – looking for a remit (Part 1: the options)

Although the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) of the Bank of England is independent in setting interest rates, until recently it still had to follow a precise remit set by the government. This was to target inflation of 2% (±1%), with interest rates set to meet this target in 24 months’ time. But things have changed since the new Governor, Mark Carney, took up office in July 2013. And now things are not so clear cut.

The Bank announced that it would keep Bank Rate at the current historically low level of 0.5% at least until unemployment had fallen to 7%, subject to various conditions. More generally, the Bank stated that:

The MPC intends at a minimum to maintain the present highly stimulative stance of monetary policy until economic slack has been substantially reduced, provided this does not entail material risks to price stability or financial stability.

This ‘forward guidance’ was designed to provide more information about future policy and thereby more certainty for businesses and households to plan.

But unemployment has fallen rapidly in recent months. It fell from a 7.7% average for the three months May to July 2013 to 7.1% for the latest available three months (September to November 2013). And yet there is still considerable slack in the economy.

It now, therefore, looks highly unlikely that the MPC will raise Bank Rate as soon as unemployment falls below 7%. This then raises the question of how useful the 7% target has been and whether, if anything, it has created further uncertainty about future MPC decisions.

The following still appears on the Bank of England website:

The MPC intends at a minimum to maintain the present highly stimulative stance of monetary policy until economic slack has been substantially reduced, provided this does not entail material risks to price stability or financial stability.

But this raises two questions: (a) how do you measure ‘economic slack’ and (b) what constitutes a substantial reduction?

So what should the Bank do now? What, if any, forward guidance should it offer to the markets? Will that forward guidance be credible? After all, credibility among businesses and households is an important condition for any policy stance. According to Larry Elliott in the first article below, there are five options.

Articles
Bank of England’s method of setting interest rates needs reviewing The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/2/14)
Mark Carney set to adjust Bank interest rate policy BBC News (12/2/14)
Forward guidance: dead and alive BBC News, Robert Peston (11/2/14)
What “forward guidance” is, and how it (theoretically) works The Economist (11/2/14)
BOE’s forward guidance 2.0: Cheap talk, or big change? Market Watch (11/2/14)

Bank of England pages
Monetary Policy Bank of England
MPC Remit Letters Bank of England
Forward Guidance Bank of England

Questions

  1. What data would you need to have in order to identify the degree of economic slack in the economy?
  2. Why is it difficult to obtain such data – at least in a reliable form?
  3. Why might the issuing of the forward guidance last July have itself contributed to the fall in unemployment?
  4. Why is it difficult to obtain such data – at least in a reliable form?
  5. Why is credibility an important requirement for policy?
  6. Why may LFS unemployment be a poor guide to the degree of slack in the economy?
  7. Discuss the relative merits of each of the five policy options identified by Larry Elliott.
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When inflation may be good news

Japan has suffered from deflation on and off for more than 20 years. A problem with falling prices is that they discourage spending as people wait for prices to fall further. One of the three elements of the Japanese government’s macroeconomic policy (see Japan’s three arrows) has been expansionary monetary policy, including aggressive quantitative easing. A key aim of this is to achieve an inflation target of 2% and, hopefully, propel the economy out of its deflationary trap.

The latest news, therefore, from Japan would seem to be good: consumer prices rose 0.4% in June – the first rise for more than a year. But while some analysts see the rise in prices to be partly the result of a recovery in demand (i.e. demand-pull inflation), others claim that the inflation is largely of the cost-push variety as the weaker yen has increased the price of imported fuel and food.

If Japanese recovery is to be sustained and broadly based, a growth in real wages should be a core component. As it is, real wages are not growing. This could seriously constrain the recovery. For real wages to grow, employers need to be convinced that economic recovery will be sustained and that it would be profitable to take on more labour.

The success of the expansionary policy, therefore, depends in large part on its effect on expectations. Do people believe that prices will continue to rise? Do employers believe that the economy will continue to expand? And do people believe that their real wages will rise?

Articles
Japan prices turn higher, but BOJ’s goal remains tall order Reuters, Tetsushi Kajimoto and Leika Kihara (26/7/13)
How Japan Could Go from Deflation to Hyperinflation in a Heartbeat The Wall Street Journal, Michael J. Casey (24/7/13)
Japan Prices Rise Most Since ’08 in Boost for Abe Bloomberg, Toru Fujioka & Andy Sharp (26/7/13)
Japan central bank finds the pessimists come from within Reuters, Leika Kihara (26/7/13)
Japan’s Fiscal Crossroads: Will Abenomics Mean Tougher Changes? The Daily Beast, Daniel Gross (26/7/13)
Japan Economist Makes Rare Call to Tackle Debt The Wall Street Journal, Kosaku Narioka (25/7/13)
Japanese Consumer Prices Rise In Sign Of Some Success In Abe Economic Policy International Business Times, Nat Rudarakanchana (26/7/13)

Data
Bank of Japan Statistics Bank of Japan
Statistics Statistics Bureau of Japan
International sites for data Economics Network

Questions

  1. Distinguish between cost-push and demand-pull inflation? Do higher prices resulting from a depreciation of the currency always imply that the resulting inflation is of the cost-push variety?
  2. In the Japanese context, is inflation wholly desirable or are there any undesirable consequences?
  3. Consider whether a two-year time frame is realistic for the the Bank of Japan to achieve its 2% inflation target.
  4. What is meant by the output gap? Using sources such as the European Commission’s European Economy, AMECO database and the OECD’s Economic Outlook: Statistical Annex Tables (see sites 6 and 7 in the Economics Network’s links to Economic Data freely available online) trace the Japanese output gap over the past 10 years and comment on your findings.
  5. What supply-side constraints are likely to limit the rate and extent of recovery in Japan? What is the Japanese government doing about this (see the third arrow of Japan’s three arrows)?
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A gathering storm (Part 1)

This has been a week of gloomy prognostications. On Wednesday 16 May, the Bank of England published its quarterly Inflation Report – and it makes worrying reading.

The forecast of UK economic growth for 2012 has been reduced from 1.2% in the previous report to 0.8%. But the rate of inflation is forecast to remain above the 2% target well into next year. However, at the two-year horizon, inflation is now forecast to be 1.6% – below the target, thus giving the MPC scope for further quantitative easing.

In the introduction to the report, the Governor, Mervyn King, writes:

Over the past year or so, two factors have hampered the recovery and rebalancing by more than expected. First, higher-than-expected world commodity and energy prices have squeezed real take-home pay, dampening consumption growth. Second, credit conditions, far from easing, have in some cases become tighter. The direct and indirect exposures of UK banks to the euro-area periphery have affected funding costs as the challenges of tackling the indebtedness and lack of competitiveness in those countries have intensified.

And at the news conference launching the report, he said:

We have been through a big global financial crisis, the biggest downturn in world output since the 1930s, the biggest banking crisis in this country’s history, the biggest fiscal deficit in our peace time history and our biggest trading partner – the euro area – is tearing itself apart without any obvious solution.

The idea that we could reasonably hope to sail serenely through this with growth close to the long run average and inflation at 2% strikes me as wholly unrealistic. We’re bound to be buffeted by this and affected by it.

The following articles look at the Bank of England’s predictions and at the challenges facing the UK economy as the crisis in the eurozone deepens and as inflation in the UK remains stubbornly above target. They also look at the issue of the extent to which capacity has been lost as a result of the continuing weakness of the UK economy. As The Economist article states:

Business surveys suggest only a small proportion of firms are operating below capacity. That finding looks odd given the economy’s output is still 4% below its level at the start of 2008, and is much farther below the level it would have reached if GDP growth had continued at its long-term rate. The picture painted by surveys could be right if a chunk of the economy’s potential has been written off for good. But Sir Mervyn King, the bank’s governor, doubts this. There is “no obvious reason” why the economy could not rejoin its pre-crisis path, though it might take a decade or two to get there, he said on May 16th.

We look in more detail at the question of lost capacity in Part 2.

Articles
Bank of England cuts growth forecasts: Sir Mervyn King’s speech in full The Telegraph (16/5/12)
Bank of England sees inflation up and growth falling Independent, Ben Chu (17/5/12)
Hard going The Economist (19/5/12)
Bank of England optimism dented again Financial Times, Chris Giles (16/5/12)
Eurozone is ‘tearing itself apart’, says Mervyn King. True, but the UK’s problems are as intractable as ever The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (16/5/12)

Inflation Report
Inflation Report: portal page Bank of England
Inflation Report: May 2012 Bank of England (16/5/12)

Additional Data
Statistical annex to European Economy. Spring 2012 European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs
Annual macro-economic database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs (11/5/12) (see particularly section 6.5)
Forecasts for the UK economy HM Treasury

Questions

  1. What explanations are given for the rate of CPI inflation remaining persistently above the 2% target?
  2. Why have the prospects for economic growth worsened since the publication of the February Inflation Report?
  3. How might it be possible to have a narrowing (negative) output gap and yet a stagnant economy?
  4. Why may capacity have been lost since the financial crisis of 2008?
  5. Why has M4 declined despite the programme of quantitative easing? (See M4 in record fall despite QE.)
  6. What scope is there for monetary policy in achieving faster economic growth without pushing inflation above the 2% target?
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Becalmed in a safe haven?

The quarter 2 UK GDP growth figures were published at the end of July. They show that real GDP grew by a mere 0.2% over the quarter, or 0.7% over 12 months. These low growth figures follow 2010Q4 and 2011Q1 growth rates of –0.5 and 0.5 respectively, giving an approximately zero growth over those six months. The recovery that seemed to be gathering pace in early 2010, now seems to have petered out, or at best slowed right down. According to an average of 27 forecasts, collated by the Treasury, GDP is expected to grow by just 1.3% in 2011 – below the potential rate of economic growth and thus resulting in a widening of the output gap.

With such a slow pace of recovery, current forecasts suggest that it will be 2013 before the economy returns to the pre-recession level of output: just over five years after the start of the recession in 2008. This chart from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research compares the current recession with previous ones and shows how the recovery is likely to be the slowest of the five recessions since the 1930s.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in its latest Economic Forecast says that the economic outlook has become more challenging.

The intensification of euro area sovereign debt pressures has added to the downside risks facing the UK economy – although the agreement reached at the recent summit appears to represent an initial step towards resolving the issues.

Meanwhile the global economy is going through a soft patch, partly as a result of the previous surge in commodity prices, which has put pressure on household budgets and raised costs for businesses.

Against this backdrop confidence appears to have wilted somewhat.

The opposition blames the slow pace of recovery on the austerity measures imposed by the government. The depressing of aggregate demand by cutting government expenditure and raising taxes has depressed output growth. The problem has been compounded by a lack of consumer spending as real household incomes have been squeezed by inflation and as consumers fear impending tax rises and cuts in benefits. And export growth, which was hoped to lead the country’s recovery, has been hit by weak demand in Europe and elsewhere.

With weak growth, the danger is that automatic fiscal stabilisers (i.e. more people claiming benefits and lack of growth in tax revenues) will mean that the government deficit is not cut. This may then force the Chancellor into further austerity, which would compound the problem of low demand. The opposition has thus been calling for a (temporary) cut in VAT to stimulate the economy.

The government argues that rebalancing the budget is absolutely crucial to maintaining international confidence and Britain’s AAA rating by the credit rating agencies, Moody’s, Fitch and Standard and Poor’s (S&P). Any sign that the government is slacking in its resolve, could undermine this confidence. According to George Osborne, while other countries (including the USA and many eurozone countries) are facing a lot of instability, “Britain is a safe haven. We have convinced the world that we can deal with our debts, bring our deficit down, and that’s meant that interest rates, for British families, for British businesses, are lower than they would otherwise be; it means that our country’s credit rating has been affirmed … and it means that we have that crucial ingredient of any recovery – economic stability.”

What is more, the government claims that the essence of the UK’s problem of low growth lies on the supply side. The focus of growth policy, it maintains, should be on cutting red tape, improving efficiency and, ultimately, in reducing taxes.

What we are witnessing is a debate that echoes the Keynesian/new classical debates of the 1980s and earlier: a debate between those who blame the current problem on lack of aggregate demand and those who blame it on supply-side weaknesses, including weaknesses of the banking sector.

So what should be done? Is it time for a (modest) fiscal expansion, or at least a reining in of the fiscal tightening? Should the Bank of England embark on another round of quantitative easing (QE2)? Or does the solution lie on the supply side? Or should policy combine elements of both?

Articles
UK economy grows by 0.2% BBC News (26/7/11)
Economic growth stalls – and slump will carry on until 2013 Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/7/11)
GDP figures mean Britain will miss its economic growth targets Guardian, Julia Kollewe (26/7/11)
UK GDP figures show slower growth of 0.2% BBC News (26/7/11)
UK growth forecast looks unrealistic after GDP fall Independent, Sean O’Grady (27/7/11)
UK set for low growth as the mood ‘darkens’ Independent, Sean O’Grady (1/8/11)
No sign of a U-turn – but there may be a minor course change Scotsman, John McLaren (27/7/11)
George Osborne vows to stick with ‘plan A’ despite UK GDP growth slowdown The Telegraph, John McLaren (27/7/11)
Weak growth may force Chancellor into further austerity The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (26/7/11)
UK households squeezed harder than US or Europe The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick, and Emma Rowley (30/7/11)
UK Government will have to act if growth remains weak, warns CBI The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (1/8/11)
UK economy GDP figures: what the experts say Guardian, Claire French (26/7/11)
My plan B for the economy Guardian, Ed Balls, Ruth Lea, Jonathan Portes, Digby Jones and Stephanie Blankenburg (27/7/11)
Not much of a squeeze The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (26/7/11)
Some safe haven The Economist (30/7/11)
UK growth – anything to be done? BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (26/7/11)
IMF report on UK: main points The Telegraph, Sarah Rainey (2/8/11)
Families to be £1,500 a year worse off, IMF warns The Telegraph, Philip Aldrick (2/8/11)
IMF casts doubt on UK deficit plan, Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/8/11)

Data and reports
GDP Growth (reliminary estimate) ONS
Gross domestic product preliminary estimate: 2nd Quarter 2011 ONS (26/7/11)
World Economic Outlook Update IMF
OECD Economic Outlook No. 89 Annex Tables OECD (see Table 1)
United Kingdom: IMF Country Report No. 11/220 IMF (2/8/11)
Prospects for the UK economy National Institute of Economic and Social Research (3/8/11)

Questions

  1. What special ‘one-off’ factors help to explain why the underlying growth in 2011Q2 may have been higher than 0.2%?
  2. Why is the output gap rising? How may supply-side changes affect the size of the output gap?
  3. Why is the recovery from recession in the UK slower than in most other countries? Why is it slower than the recovery from previous recessions?
  4. How may automatic fiscal stabilisers affect (a) economic growth and (b) the size of the public-sector deficit if the output gap widens?
  5. Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side causes of the slow rate of economic growth in the UK.
  6. Compare the likely effectiveness of demand-side and supply-side policy measures to stimulate economic growth, referring to both magnitude and timing.
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Time for a rise in Bank Rate?

Bank rate in the UK has been at the historically low level of 0.5% since March 2009 and the MPC decision on 13 January was to leave the rate unchanged (see also). But inflation has been well above the Bank of England’s target of 2% since December 2009 and it could well rise further as international commodity prices are soaring. Some economists are thus arguing that Bank rate should rise. This is crucial, they say, to dampen inflationary expectations.

Other economists, however, argue that aggregate demand is likely to remain depressed and that the economy is operating with a large negative output gap. What is more, house prices are falling, as are real wages (see Bosses gain – workers’ pain)

In the following extract from BBC Radio 4′s Today Programme, two economists, Charles Goodhart and Willem Buiter, both former members of the MPC, debate the issue.

Podcast
Should interest rates rise? BBC Today Programme (13/1/11)

Data
Economic and Labour Market Review, Office for National Statistics (For inflation data see Tables Chapter 3, Table 3.01; for interest rates see Tables Chapter 5, Table 5.08)
Monetary Policy Committee Decisions Bank of England

Questions

  1. What are the arguments for a rise in Bank rate at the current time?
  2. What are the arguments against a rise in Bank rate at the current time?
  3. What information would you require to decide which of the arguments was the more powerful?
  4. Why is it difficult to decide the size of the output gap?
  5. To what extent do the arguments for and against a rise in Bank rate depend on the factors determining expectations, and what expectations are important here?
  6. To what extent are exchange rates relevant to the effectiveness of interest rate policy?
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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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