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Posts Tagged ‘potential output’

Brazil: suffering from an old economic problem in the new world

The article below looks at the economy of Brazil. The statistics do not look good. Real output fell last year by 3.8% and this year it is expected to fall by another 3.3%. Inflation this year is expected to be 9.0% and unemployment 11.2%, with the government deficit expected to be 10.4% of GDP.

The article considers Keynesian economics in the light of the case of Brazil, which is suffering from declining potential supply, but excess demand. It compares Brazil with the case of most developed countries in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Here countries have suffered from a lack of demand, made worse by austerity policies, and only helped by expansionary monetary policy. But the effect of the monetary policy has generally been weak, as much of the extra money has been used to purchase assets rather than funding a growth in aggregate demand.

Different policy prescriptions are proposed in the article. For developed countries struggling to grow, the solution would seem to be expansionary fiscal policy, made easy to fund by lower interest rates. For Brazil, by contrast, the solution proposed is one of austerity. Fiscal policy should be tightened. As the article states:

Spending restraint might well prove painful for some members of Brazilian society. But hyperinflation and default are hardly a walk in the park for those struggling to get by. Generally speaking, austerity has been a misguided policy approach in recent years. But Brazil is a special case. For now, anyway.

The tight fiscal policies could be accompanied by supply-side policies aimed at reducing bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Brazil and the new old normal: There is more than one kind of economic mess to be in The Economist, Free Exchange Economics (12/10/16)


  1. Explain what is meant by ‘crowding out’.
  2. What is meant by the ‘liquidity trap’? Why are many countries in the developed world currently in a liquidity trap?
  3. Why have central banks in the developed world found it difficult to stimulate growth with policies of quantitative easing?
  4. Under what circumstances would austerity policies be valuable in the developed world?
  5. Why is crowding out of fiscal policy unlikely to occur to any great extent in Europe, but is highly likely to occur in Brazil?
  6. What has happened to potential GDP in Brazil in the past couple of years?
  7. What is meant by the ‘terms of trade’? Why have Brazil’s terms of trade deteriorated?
  8. What sort of policies could the Brazilian government pursue to raise growth rates? Are these demand-side or supply-side policies?
  9. Should Brazil pursue austerity policies and, if so, what form should they take?
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What’s the outlook for the global economy?

The International Monetary Fund has just published its six-monthly World Economic Outlook (WEO). The publication assesses the state of the global economy and forecasts economic growth and other indicators over the next few years. So what is this latest edition predicting?

Well, once again the IMF had to adjust its global economic growth forecasts down from those made six months ago, which in turn were lower than those made a year ago. As Larry Elliott comments in the Guardian article linked below:

Every year, economists at the fund predict that recovery is about to move up a gear, and every year they are disappointed. The IMF has over-estimated global growth by one percentage point a year on average for the past four years.

In this latest edition, the IMF is predicting that growth in 2015 will be slightly higher in developed countries than in 2014 (2.0% compared with 1.8%), but will continue to slow for the fifth year in emerging market and developing countries (4.0% in 2015 compared with 4.6% in 2014 and 7.5% in 2010).

In an environment of declining commodity prices, reduced capital flows to emerging markets and pressure on their currencies, and increasing financial market volatility, downside risks to the outlook have risen, particularly for emerging market and developing economies.

So what is the cause of this sluggish growth in developed countries and lower growth in developing countries? Is lower long-term growth the new norm? Or is this a cyclical effect – albeit protracted – with the world economy set to resume its pre-financial-crisis growth rates eventually?

To achieve faster economic growth in the longer term, potential national output must grow more rapidly. This can be achieved by a combination of more rapid technological progress and higher investment in both physical and human capital. But in the short term, aggregate demand must expand sufficiently rapidly. Higher short-term growth will encourage higher investment, which in turn will encourage faster growth in potential national output.

But aggregate demand remains subdued. Many countries are battling to cut budget deficits, and lending to the private sector is being constrained by banks still seeking to repair their balance sheets. Slowing growth in China and other emerging economies is dampening demand for raw materials and this is impacting on primary exporting countries, which are faced with lower exports and lower commodity prices.

Quantitative easing and rock bottom interest rates have helped somewhat to offset these adverse effects on aggregate demand, but as the USA and UK come closer to raising interest rates, so this could dampen global demand further and cause capital to flow from developing countries to the USA in search of higher interest rates. This will put downward pressure on developing countries’ exchange rates, which, while making their exports more competitive, will make it harder for them to finance dollar-denominated debt.

As we have seen, long-term growth depends on growth in potential output, but productivity growth has been slower since the financial crisis. As the Foreword to the report states:

The ongoing experience of slow productivity growth suggests that long-run potential output growth may have fallen broadly across economies. Persistently low investment helps explain limited labour productivity and wage gains, although the joint productivity of all factors of production, not just labour, has also been slow. Low aggregate demand is one factor that discourages investment, as the last World Economic Outlook report showed. Slow expected potential growth itself dampens aggregate demand, further limiting investment, in a vicious circle.

But is this lower growth in potential output entirely the result of lower demand? And will the effect be permanent? Is it a form of hysteresis, with the effect persisting even when the initial causes have disappeared? Or will advances in technology, especially in the fields of robotics, nanotechnology and bioengineering, allow potential growth to resume once confidence returns?

Which brings us back to the short and medium terms. What can be done by governments to stimulate sustained recovery? The IMF proposes a focus on productive infrastructure investment, which will increase both aggregate demand and aggregate supply, and also structural reforms. At the same time, loose monetary policy should continue for some time – certainly as long as the current era of falling commodity prices, low inflation and sluggish growth in demand persists.

Uncertainty, Complex Forces Weigh on Global Growth IMF Survey Magazine (6/10/15)
A worried IMF is starting to scratch its head The Guardian, Larry Elliott (6/10/15)
Storm clouds gather over global economy as world struggles to shake off crisis The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (6/10/15)
Five charts that explain what’s going on in a miserable global economy right now The Telegraph, Mehreen Khan (6/10/15)
IMF warns on worst global growth since financial crisis Financial Times, Chris Giles (6/10/15)
Global economic slowdown in six steps Financial Times, Chris Giles (6/10/15)
IMF Downgrades Global Economic Outlook Again Wall Street Journal, Ian Talley (6/10/15)

WEO publications
World Economic Outlook, October 2015: Adjusting to Lower Commodity Prices IMF (6/10/15)
Global Growth Slows Further, IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook IMF Podcast, Maurice Obstfeld (6/10/15)
Transcript of the World Economic Outlook Press Conference IMF (6/10/15)
World Economic Outlook Database IMF (October 2015 edition)


  1. Look at the forecasts made in the WEO October editions of 2007, 2010 and 2012 for economic growth two years ahead and compare them with the actual growth experienced. How do you explain the differences?
  2. Why is forecasting even two years ahead fraught with difficulties?
  3. What factors would cause a rise in (a) potential output; (b) potential growth?
  4. What is the relationship between actual and potential economic growth?
  5. Explain what is meant by hysteresis. Why may recessions have a permanent negative effect, not only on trend productivity levels, but on trend productivity growth?
  6. What are the current downside risks to the global economy?
  7. Why have commodity prices fallen? Who gains and who loses from lower commodity prices? Does it matter if falling commodity prices in commodity importing countries result in negative inflation?
  8. To what extent can exchange rate depreciation help commodity exporting countries?
  9. What is meant by the output gap? How have IMF estimates of the size of the output gap changed and what is the implication of this for actual and potential economic growth?
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The UK’s poor productivity record

Real GDP depends on two things: output per hour worked and the number of hours worked. On the surface, the UK economy is currently doing relatively well, with growth in 2014 of 2.8%. After several years of poor economic growth following the financial crisis of 2007/8, growth of 2.8% represents a return to the long-run average for the 20 years prior to the crisis.

But growth since 2010 has been entirely due to an increase in hours worked. On the one hand, this is good, as it has meant an increase in employment. In this respect, the UK is doing better than other major economies. But productivity has not grown and on this front, the UK is doing worse than other countries.

The first chart shows UK output per hour worked (click here for a PowerPoint). It is based on figures released by the ONS on 1 April 2015. Average annual growth in output per hour worked was 2.3% from 2000 to 2008. Since then, productivity growth has stalled and output per hour is now lower than at the peak in 2008.

The green line projects from 2008 what output per hour would have been if its growth had remained at 2.3%. It shows that by the end of 2014 output per hour would have been nearly 18% higher if productivity growth had been maintained.

The second chart compares UK productivity growth with other countries (click here for a PowerPoint). Up to 2008, UK productivity was rising slightly faster than in the other five countries illustrated. Since then, it has performed worse than the other five countries, especially since 2011.

Productivity growth increases potential GDP. It also increases actual GDP if the productivity increase is not offset by a fall in hours worked. A rise in hours worked without a rise in productivity, however, even though it results in an increase in actual output, does not increase potential output. If real GDP growth is to be sustained over the long term, there must be an increase in productivity and not just in hours worked.

The articles below examines this poor productivity performance and looks at reasons why it has been so bad.

UK’s sluggish productivity worsened in late 2014 – ONS Reuters (1/4/15)
UK productivity growth is weakest since second world war, says ONS The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/4/15)
UK productivity weakness worsening, says ONS Financial Times, Chris Giles (1/4/15)
Is the UK’s sluggish productivity a problem? Financial Times comment (1/4/15)
UK manufacturing hits eight-month high but productivity slump raises fears over sustainability of economic recovery This is Money, Camilla Canocchi (1/4/15)
Weak UK productivity unprecedented, ONS says BBC News (1/4/15)
Weep for falling productivity Robert Peston (1/4/15)
UK’s Falling Productivity Prevented A Massive Rise In Unemployment Forbes, Tim Worstall (2/4/15)

Labour Productivity, Q4 2014 ONS (1/4/15)
AMECO database European Commission, Economic and Financial Affairs


  1. How can productivity be measured? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using specific measures?
  2. Draw a diagram to show the effects on equilibrium national income of (a) a productivity increase, but offset by a fall in the number of hours worked; (b) a productivity increase with hours worked remaining the same; (c) a rise in hours worked with no increase in productivity. Assume that actual output depends on aggregate demand.
  3. Is poor productivity growth good for employment? Explain.
  4. Why is productivity in the UK lower now than in 2008?
  5. What policies can be pursued to increase productivity in the UK?
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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.

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


  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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A gathering storm (Part 3)

In the third and final part of this blog, we look at the G8 summit at Camp David on 18 and 19 May 2012. Ways of averting the deepening global economic crisis were top of the agenda.

In terms of the global economy, the leaders agreed on three main things. The first was that they supported Greece remaining in the euro. According to the communiqué:

We agree on the importance of a strong and cohesive eurozone for global stability and recovery, and we affirm our interest in Greece remaining in the eurozone while respecting its commitments. We all have an interest in the success of specific measures to strengthen the resilience of the eurozone and growth in Europe

The second was a commitment to ‘fiscal responsibility’ and the clawing down of public-sector deficits.

We commit to fiscal responsibility and, in this context, we support sound and sustainable fiscal consolidation policies that take into account countries’ evolving economic conditions and underpin confidence and economic recovery.

The third was commitment to boosting economic growth. (Click on chart for a larger image.) On the supply side this would be through measures to stimulate productivity. On the demand side this would be through policies to stimulate investment.
(For a PowerPoint of the chart, click on the following link: Quarterly Growth.)

To raise productivity and growth potential in our economies, we support structural reforms, and investments in education and in modern infrastructure, as appropriate. Investment initiatives can be financed using a range of mechanisms, including leveraging the private sector. Sound financial measures, to which we are committed, should build stronger systems over time while not choking off near-term credit growth. We commit to promote investment to underpin demand, including support for small businesses and public-private partnerships.

But the communiqué was short on details. How will fiscal consolidation be achieved? Does this mean a continuation of austerity measures? And if so, what will be the impact on aggregate demand? Or if fiscal consolidation is slowed down, what will be the impact on financial markets?

If a growth in investment is central to the policy, what will be the precise mechanisms to encourage it? Will they be enough to combat the deflationary effect on demand of the fiscal measures?

And how will productivity increases be achieved? What supply-side measures will be introduced? And will productivity increases be encouraged or discouraged by continuing austerity measures?

Lots of questions – questions raised by the articles below.

Capitalism at a crossroads Independent (19/5/12)
Barack Obama warns eurozone to focus on jobs and growth The Telegraph (20/5/12)
G8 Summit: World leaders push for Greece to stay in the eurozone The Telegraph, Angela Monaghan (19/5/12)
Obama sees ‘emerging consensus’ on crisis Sydney Morning Herald, Ben Feller and Jim Kuhnhenn (20/5/12)
G8 leaders tout economic growth, fiscal responsibility CNN (20/5/12)
G8 focuses on Eurozone Gulf News (20/5/12)
G8 leaders back Greece amid tensions France 24 (20/5/12)
G8 splits over stimulus versus austerity Financial TimesRichard McGregor and Kiran Stacey (19/5/12)
Cameron is consigning the UK to stagnation Financial Times, Martin Wolf (17/5/12)
Time to end ‘Camerkozy’ economics Financial Times, Ed Miliband (18/5/12)
Obama: Eurozone ‘must focus on jobs and growth’ BBC News (20/5/12)
World leaders back Greece, vow to combat financial turmoil Reuters, Jeff Mason and Laura MacInnis (19/5/12)
Germany isolated over euro crisis plan at G8 meeting in Camp David Guardian, Patrick Wintour (19/5/12)
G8 leaders end summit with pledge to keep Greece in eurozone Guardian, Ewen MacAskill (19/5/12)
G8 summit ends with few tangible results Xinhua, Sun Hao (20/5/12)

Final communiqué
Camp David DeclarationG8 (19/5/12)


  1. To what extent are economic growth and fiscal consolidation (a) compatible; (b) incompatible objectives? How might a Keynesian and a new classical economist respond to these questions?
  2. What supply-side measures could be introduced by the EU?
  3. Why might dangers of protectionism increase in the coming months?
  4. What would be the impact of a Greek default and exit from the eurozone on other eurozone economies?
  5. What monetary policy changes could be introduced by the eurozone governments and the ECB in order to ease the sovereign debt crisis of countries such as Grecce, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland?
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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.

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)


  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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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.

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


  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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Getting real with GDP (update)

Just how large is the UK economy and how rapidly is it growing? These were questions we asked, back at the turn of the year, in Getting real with GDP when reviewing economic data for the third quarter of 2010. We update this blog in light of the latest Quarterly National Accounts release from the Office for National Statistics.

The latest Quarterly National Accounts release estimates the value of our economy’s output during Q1 of 2011 at £375.3 million. When measured across the latest four quarters, i.e. from the start of Q2 2010 to the end of Q1 2011, the total value of our economy’s output was £1.472 trillion. Across calendar year 2010 the UK’s GDP is estimated to have been £1.455 trillion.

When analysed in terms of the total expenditure on the goods and services produced in the latest four quarters, household final consumption contributed £931 billion of Gross Domestic Product. In other words, household expenditure over these four quarters was equivalent to 63% of GDP, almost exactly in line with its average since 1948. This demonstrates the importance of spending by households for short-term economic growth. Households help to shape the business cycle.

Another important expenditure-component of GDP is gross capital formation. This is capital expenditure by the private and public sector and is estimated to have been £219.6 billion over the latest four quarters, equivalent to 15% of GDP. As well as affecting current levels of GDP, gross capital formation also affects our economy’s potential output. In other words, changes in capital expenditure can impact both on the demand-side and the supply-side of the economy. Interestingly, the long-term average share for gross capital formation in GDP is around 18% and so about 3 percentage points higher than is currently the case.

So far we have looked at the level of economic activity measured at current prices. But, what about the rate at which the economy is growing? When analysing the rate of economic growth economists look at GDP at constant prices. By doing this economists can infer whether the volume of output has increased. This is important because in the presence of price rises, an increase in the value of output could occur even if the volume of output remained unchanged or actually fell. For instance, in 1974 the volume of output or real GDP fell by 1.3%, but because the average price of our domestic output – the GDP deflator – rose by 14.9%, GDP measured at current prices rose by nearly 13.4%.

The latest ONS figures show that in the first quarter of 2011 real GDP grew by 0.5% (nominal GDP grew by 1.7%). This follows a 0.5% fall in real GDP the final quarter of 2010 (nominal GDP grew by 1.2%). Compared with Q1 2010, the volume of output of the UK economy in Q1 2011 is estimated to have grown by 1.6%.

Exports were the fastest growing component of aggregate demand in Q1, rising in real terms by 2.4%, while import volumes decreased by 2.4%. Export volumes in Q1 were 9.3% higher than a year earlier. In contrast, capital expenditures contracted sharply in the first quarter, falling by 4.2%. This follows on the back of a 0.6% fall in the final quarter of last year. This has reversed much of the strong capital expenditure growth seen during the earlier part of 2010.

We finish by looking at the growth in household spending. In the first quarter of the year real household spending fell by 0.6%. This follows a 0.2 fall in Q4 2010 and zero growth in Q3 2010. This helps to explain some of the difficulties that particular retailers have faced of late. Some context to these disappointing consumption numbers is provided by patterns in household sector disposable income. The sector’s disposable income fell by 0.8% in Q1 2011 which follows on from a 0.9% fall in the last quarter of last year. The result of this is that the household sector’s real disposable income in Q1 2011 was 2.7% lower than in Q1 2010. This was the fastest annual rate of decline since the third quarter of 1977.

Household incomes sees biggest fall since 1977 BBC News (29/6/11)
UK service sector sees biggest fall for 15 months BBC News (28/6/11)
UK economic growth revised down BBC News (29/6/11)
Service sector output slumps Guardian, Phillip Inman (29/6/11)
Household raid savings as income squeezed Independent, Sean O’Grady (29/6/11)
Poor GDP numbers add pressure on Osborne Guardian, Phillip Inman (28/6/11)
UK economy suffers blow as tepid growth confirmed Telegraph (28/6/11)
Service sector slumps deals heavy blow to economic recovery hopes Scotsman, Natalie Thomas (30/6/11)

Latest on GDP growth Office for National Statistics (28/6/11)
Quarterly National Accounts, 1st Quarter 2011 Office for National Statistics (28/6/11))
ONS Time Series Data Office for National Statistics
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission


  1. What do you understand by the terms nominal GDP and real GDP?
  2. Can you think of any other contexts in which we might wish to distinguish between nominal and real changes?
  3. The following are the estimates of GDP at constant 2006 prices:
    Q1 2011= £330.724bn, Q4 2010= £329.189bn, Q1 2010= £325.360bn
    Calculate both the quarterly rate of change and the annual rate of change for Q1 2011.
  4. What would happen to our estimates of the level of constant–price GDP in (3) if the base year for prices was 1996 rather than 2006? What if the base year was 2011? What would happen to the quarterly and annual growth rates you calculated in each case? Explain your answer.
  5. Explain how gross capital formation could have both demand-side and supply-side effects on the economy. How significant do you think such supply-side effects can be?
  6. How important for short-term economic growth do you think household spending is? What factors do you think will be important in affecting household spending in the months ahead?
  7. What factors do you think help to explain the 2.7% annual rate of decline reported in Q1 2011 in the household sector’s real disposable income?
  8. The real annual rate of decline in household spending reported in Q1 2011 was 0.5%. Would you have expected this percentage decline to have been the same as for real disposable income? Explain your answer.
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Operating in a cloud

“There are ‘incredible economies of scale in cloud computing’ that make it a compelling alternative to traditional enterprise data centers.” According to the first article below, cloud computing represents a step change in the way businesses are likely to handle data or use software. Rather than having their own servers with their own programs, they use a centralised service or ‘public cloud’, provided by a company such as Microsoft, Google or Amazon Web Services. The cloud is accessed via the Internet or a dedicated network. It can thus be accessed not only from company premises but by mobile workers using tablets or other devices and thus makes telecommuting more cost effective.

There are considerable economies of scale in providing these computing services, with the minimum efficient scale considerably above the output of individual users. By accessing the cloud, individual users can benefit from the low average costs achieved by the cloud provider without having to invest in, and frequently update, the hardware and software themselves.

In the case of large companies, rather than using a public cloud, they can use a ‘private cloud’. This is hosted by the IT department in the company and achieves economies of scale at this level by removing the need for individual departments to purchase their own software and servers. Of course, the costs of providing the cloud is borne by the company itself and thus the benefits of lower up-front IT capital costs are reduced. This is clearly a less radical development and is really only an extension of the policy of many companies over the years of having centralised servers holding data and various software packages.

In autumn 2010, EMC Computer Systems commissioned economists at the Centre for Economics and Business Research (cebr) to quantify the full impact that cloud computing will have over the years ahead. According to the report, The Cloud Dividend:

The Cebr’s research calculates that €177.3 billion per year will be generated by 2015, if companies across Europe’s five largest economies continue to adopt cloud technology as expected.

The Cebr found that the annual economic benefit of cloud computing, by 2015, will be:
• France – €37.4 billion
• Germany – €49.6 billion
• Italy – €35.1 billion
• Spain – €25.2 billion
• UK – €30.0 billion

Will the ability of cloud computing to drive down the costs of IT mean that a new revolution is underway? Just how significant are the economies of scale and are they likely to grow as cloud providers themselves grow in size and experience? The following articles look at some of the issues.

Microsoft: ‘Incredible Economies Of Scale’ Await Cloud Users InformationWeek, Charles Babcock (11/5/11)
Cloud in 2011: A bright new dawn…or a shadow hanging over IT pros? The Register, Lucy Sherriff (28/5/11)
Bubbles and Golden Ages So Entrepreneurial, Nick Hughes (24/5/11)

Reports and information
The Cloud Dividend EMC2
Cloud Computing Wikipedia


  1. What specific economies of scale are achieved through cloud computing?
  2. Why might the minimum efficient scale of cloud computing services be above the level of output of many companies?
  3. What are the downsides to cloud computing?
  4. How would you set about assessing the statement that we are on the brink of a fundamental revolution in business computing?
  5. Why are customer-heavy sectors, such as financial services, utilities, governments, leisure and retail, expected to buy into the concept fastest?
  6. How can product life cycle analysis help to understand the stages in the adoption of cloud computing?
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Getting to grips with government deficits and debt: How does the UK compare?

The issue of the state of the public finances has dominated much economic-thinking in 2010. This is not just a UK issue, it is a global issue; deteriorating public finances have led to governments around the world making some often very difficult fiscal policy choices. For instance, here in the UK we are continuing to debate the issues arising from the Comprehensive Spending Review which presents the government’s spending plans for the next few financial years. Over in Ireland concerns have resurfaced about the ability of the Irish to finance its burgeoning stock of public debt (see articles below). The fragility of the Irish banking system has meant that interventions by government have been needed to support financial institutions which, some estimate, will see net borrowing by the Irish government this year rise to the equivalent of over 30% of Ireland’s Gross Domestic Product.

The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database is a rich source of information for anybody looking to make international comparisons of public finances. Being able to extract key messages from data and to make economic sense of them is a crucial skill for an economist. But, in doing so it is important that we have an understanding of some of the terms being used by those presenting the data. In this case, to help you undertake your own study of the size of government expenditures, revenues, deficits and debt for countries around the world, we provide a short overview of some of the terms relevant to understanding public finances and illustrate them with reference to a sample of countries.

The IMF’s public finance figures relate not to the whole of the public sector but to general government and thereby exclude public corporations. The general government’s budget balance is presented in both national currency and relative to its Gross Domestic Product. The latter is very useful when making comparisons across countries. A negative figure indicates net borrowing, i.e. expenditures exceed receipts, while a positive figure means that government is a net lender, i.e. receipts exceed expenditures. Forecasts are available for 2010, but, naturally, can be rather unreliable, given that the fluidity of economic events means that they are subject to sizeable revision – Ireland being a case in point.

If we look at the period from 1995–2009 as a whole, the UK was a net borrower with a deficit equivalent to around 2¾ of GDP. Ireland, in contrast, averaged close to a balanced budget with some sizeable surpluses, such as in 2006 when it ran a budget surplus equivalent to 5.2% of GDP. Some countries, such as Australia (0.5% of GDP), averaged budget surpluses over this period. But, the UK’s deficit was not especially large by international standards. From 1995–1999, the USA ran a deficit equivalent to 4.5% of GDP, Greece 5.7% of GDP and in Japan, where several fiscal stimuli have been attempted to reinvigorate the economy, 5.9% of GDP. Nonetheless, the UK’s predicted deficit for 2010 of in excess of 10% of GDP does place it towards the higher end of the deficit-scale, though by no means at the very top!

Another budget balance measure is the structural balance. This attempts to model government expenditures and receipts so as to be able to predict what the budget balance would be if the economy was at its potential output, i.e. that output level when the economy’s resources are being used at normal levels of capacity utilisation. At the moment, for instance, many countries are experiencing a negative output gap, with output below its potential. This puts upward pressure on expenditures, largely welfare expenditures, but also depresses receipts, such as those from taxes on income or spending. The UK is estimated to have run a structural budget deficit equivalent to 2.6% of potential GDP from 1995–2009. With the fiscal measures to support the economy this is forecast to be as high as 7.9% in 2010. Japan is estimated to have run a structural deficit over the period from 1995–2009 equivalent to 5.4% of potential GDP, while in Greece it is estimated at 6.1%.

Another commonly referred to budget balance measure is the primary balance. The primary balance excludes any interest received on financial assets held by government, and, more significantly, interest payments made by the government on its stock of debt. This measure gives us a sense of whether governments are able to afford today’s spending programmes. The UK ran a primary deficit between 1995 and 2009 equivalent to 1% of GDP, while in America and Japan respectively the primary deficit averaged 2.6% and 4.8% of GDP. Interestingly, because of the size of debt stocks in many countries the exclusion of interest makes a notable difference to this fiscal indicator. For instance, Greece typically ran a primary surplus equivalent to 0.9% of GDP.

Budget balances are flows, whereas debt is a stock concept. In other words, budget deficits and surpluses can add to or reduce the stock of debt. Figures are available both on gross debt and net debt. The latter is net of financial assets, including gold and currency reserves. The UK’s average stock of gross debt to GDP between 1995 and 2009 was 45.2% of GDP, but this has risen to over 75% in 2010. In fact, by international standards our public-debt to GDP ratio remains favourable. In Greece, gross public-debt to GDP is predicted to be around 130% of GDP this year, but as high as 225% in Japan.

Finally, consider an interesting case: Sweden. By international standards its public expenditure to GDP share is high, averaging 54% between 1995 and 2009. But, it ‘balances the books’ with a small average budget surplus of 0.2% of GDP and a primary surplus of 0.8% of GDP. Its stock of debt has been falling even in recent times and stands at only a little over 40% of GDP. In 2010, despite the prediction of a small overall budget deficit of 2.2% of GDP, it will continue to run a structural surplus of 0.4% of potential GDP. Hence, Sweden demonstrates nicely the danger of assuming that, in some way, public expenditure necessarily translates into government deficits and, in turn, stocks of public debt.

IMF World Economic Outlook Database
World Economic Outlook Database International Monetary Fund

Ireland warns jump in borrowing costs very serious Telegraph (12/11/10)
Ireland’s cost of borrowing soars after dramatic sell-off Telegraph, James Hall, (11/11/10)
Imperative Budget is passed – Lenihan RTE News (12/11/10)
Lenihan welcomes EU move to calm markets RTE News (12/11/10)
Irish crisis demands new EU response Financial Times , Mohamed El-Erian (12/11/10)
Britain backs EU rescue missions for debt-ridden Ireland Guardian , Phillip Inman and Patrick Wintour (12/11/10)


  1. The IMF’s figures relate to general government. What do you understand by the term general government and how does this differ from the public sector?
  2. What does net borrowing indicate about the government’s budget balance? What if it was described as a net lender?
  3. What do you understand by the term structural budget balance? How is this concept related to the business cycle?
  4. What is measured by the primary balance? Would you expect this to be higher or lower than its budget balance? Explain your answer.
  5. How does gross debt differ from net debt?
  6. What factors do you think affect investor confidence in buying government debt?
  7. Japan’s stock of gross debt is about 225% of GDP while that in Greece is 130%. Does this mean that Japan should have greater problems in financing its debt? Explain your answer.
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