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Posts Tagged ‘public-sector debt’

A Budget warning on productivity and growth

In delivering his Budget on 22 November, Philip Hammond reported that the independent Office for Budget Responsibility had revised down its forecasts of growth in productivity and real GDP, and hence of earnings growth.

Today, median earnings are £23,000 per annum. This is £1500 less than the £24,500 that the median worker earned in 2008 in today’s prices. The OBR forecasts a growth in real household disposable income of just 0.35% per annum for the next four years.

With lower growth in earnings would come a lower growth in tax revenues. With his desire to cut the budget deficit and start eventually reducing government debt, this would give the government less scope for spending on infrastructure, training and other public-sector investment; less scope to support public services, such as health and education; less scope for increasing benefits and public-sector wages.

The normal measure of productivity, and the one used by the OBR, is the value of output produced per hour worked. This has hardly increased at all since the financial crisis of 2008. It now takes an average worker in the UK approximately five days to produce the same amount as it takes an average worker in Germany four days. Although other countries’ productivity growth has also slowed since the financial crisis, it has slowed more in the UK and from a lower base – and is now forecast to rebound less quickly.

For the past few years the OBR has been forecasting that productivity growth would return to the trend rate of just over 2% that the UK achieved prior to 2008. For example, the forecasts it made in June 2010 are shown by the grey line in the chart, which were based on the pre-crash trend rate of growth in productivity (click on chart to enlarge). And the forecasts it made in November 2016 are shown by the pale green line. Yet each year productivity has hardly changed at all. Today output per hour is less than 1% above its level in 2008.

Now the OBR believes that poorer productivity growth will persist. It is still forecasting an increase (the blue line in the chart) – but by 0.7 of a percentage point less than it was forecasting a year ago (the pale green line): click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.

We have assumed that productivity growth will pick up a little, but remain significantly lower than its pre-crisis trend rate throughout the next five years. On average, we have revised trend productivity growth down by 0.7 percentage points a year. It now rises from 0.9 per cent this year to 1.2 per cent in 2022. This reduces potential output in 2021-22 by 3.0 per cent. The ONS estimates that output per hour is currently 21 per cent below an extrapolation of its pre-crisis trend. By the beginning of 2023 we expect this to have risen to 27 per cent.

Why has there been such weak productivity growth?
Weak productivity growth has been caused by a mixture of factors.

Perhaps the most important is that investment as a percentage of GDP has been lower than before the financial crisis and lower than in other countries. Partly this has been caused by a lack of funding for investment as banks have sought to rebuild their capital and have cut down on riskier loans. Partly it has been caused by a lack of demand for investment, given sluggish rates of economic growth and the belief that austerity will continue.

And it is not just private investment. Public-sector investment in transport infrastructure, housing and education and training has been lower than in other countries. Indeed, the poor training record and low skill levels in the UK are main contributors to low productivity.

The fall in the pound since the Brexit vote has raised business costs and further dampened demand as incomes have been squeezed.

Another reason for low productivity growth has been that employers have responded to weak demand, not by laying off workers and thereby raising unemployment, but by retaining low-productivity workers on low wages. Another has been the survival of ‘zombie’ firms, which, by paying low wages and facing ultra-low interest rates, are able to survive competition from firms that do invest.

Why is weak productivity growth forecast to continue?
Looking forward, the nature of the Brexit deal will impact on confidence, investment, wages and growth. If the deal is bad for the UK, the OBR’s forecasts are likely to be too optimistic. As it is, uncertainty over the nature of the post-Brexit world is weighing heavily on investment as some businesses choose to wait before committing to new investment.

On the other hand, exports may rise faster as firms respond to the depreciation of the pound and this may stimulate investment, thereby boosting productivity.

Another factor is the effect of continuing tight Budgets. There was some easing of austerity in this Budget, as the Chancellor accepted a slower reduction in the deficit, but government spending will remain tight and this is likely to weigh on growth and investment and hence productivity.

But this may all be too gloomy. It is very difficult to forecast productivity growth, especially as it is hard to measure output in much of the service sector. It may be that the productivity growth forecasts will be revised up before too long. For example, the benefits from new technologies, such as AI, may flow through more quickly than anticipated. But they may flow through more slowly and the productivity forecasts may have to be revised down even further!

Articles
The OBR’s productivity “forecast” Financial Times, Kadhim Shubber
U.K. Faces Longest Fall in Living Standards on Record Bloomberg, Simon Kennedy and Thomas Penny (23/11/17)
Britain’s Productivity Pain Costs Hammond $120 Billion Bloomberg, Fergal O’Brien (22/11/17)
OBR slashes Britain’s growth forecast on sluggish productivity and miserly pay The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (22/11/17)
Budget 2017: Stagnant earnings forecast ‘astonishing’ BBC News (23/11/17)
Economists warn Budget measures to lift productivity fall short Financial Times, Gavin Jackson and Gill Plimmer (22/11/17)
Why the economic forecasts for Britain are so apocalyptic – and how much Brexit is to blame Independent, Ben Chu (24/11/17)
Growth holds steady as economists doubt OBR’s gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (23/11/17)
Britain’s debt will not fall to 2008 levels until 2060s, IFS says in startling warning Independent, Lizzy Buchan (23/11/17)
Philip Hammond’s budget spots Britain’s problems but fails to fix them The Economist (22/11/17)
Debunking the UK’s productivity problem The Conversation, Paul Lewis (24/11/17)
Budget 2017: experts respond The Conversation (22/11/17)
Autumn Budget 2017 Forecasts Mean ‘Longest Ever Fall In Living Standards’, Says Resolution Foundation Huffington Post, Jack Sommers (23/11/17)
It May Just Sound Like A Statistic, But Productivity Growth Matters For All Of Us Huffington Post, Thomas Pope (24/11/17) (see also)
UK prospects for growth far weaker than first predicted, says OBR The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (22/11/17)
UK faces two decades of no earnings growth and more austerity, says IFS The Guardian, Phillip Inman (23/11/17)
Age of austerity isn’t over yet, says IFS budget analysis The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/11/17)

Summary of Budget measures
Budget 2017: FT experts look at what it means for you Financial Times (24/11/17)

Official Documents
Autumn Budget 2017 HM Treasury (22/11/17)
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2017 Office for Budget Responsibility (22/11/17)

IFS analysis
Autumn Budget 2017 Institute for Fiscal Studies (23/11/17)

Questions

  1. What measures of productivity are there other than output per hour? Why is output per hour normally the preferred measure of productivity?
  2. What factors determine output per hour?
  3. Why have forecasts of productivity growth rates been revised downwards?
  4. What are the implications of lower productivity growth for government finances?
  5. What could cause an increase in output per hour? Would there be any negative effects from these causes?
  6. What policies could the government pursue to increase productivity? How feasible are these policies? Explain.
  7. Would it matter if the government increased borrowing substantially to fund a large programme of public investment?
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What would Keynes say if he were alive today?

We’ve considered Keynesian economics and policy in several blogs. For example, a year ago in the post, What would Keynes say?, we looked at two articles arguing for Keynesian expansionary polices. More recently, in the blogs, End of the era of liquidity traps? and A risky dose of Keynesianism at the heart of Trumponomics, we looked at whether Donald Trump’s proposed policies are more Keynesian than his predecessor’s and at the opportunities and risks of such policies.

The article below, Larry Elliott updates the story by asking what Keynes would recommend today if he were alive. It also links to two other articles which add to the story.

Elliott asks his imaginary Keynes, for his analysis of the financial crisis of 2008 and of what has happened since. Keynes, he argues, would explain the crisis in terms of excessive borrowing, both private and public, and asset price bubbles. The bubbles then burst and people cut back on spending to claw down their debts.

Keynes, says Elliott, would approve of the initial response to the crisis: expansionary monetary policy (both lower interest rates and then quantitative easing) backed up by expansionary fiscal policy in 2009. But expansionary fiscal policies were short lived. Instead, austerity fiscal policies were adopted in an attempt to reduce public-sector deficits and, ultimately, public-sector debt. This slowed down the recovery and meant that much of the monetary expansion went into inflating the prices of assets, such as housing and shares, rather than in financing higher investment.

He also asks his imaginary Keynes what he’d recommend as the way forward today. Keynes outlines three alternatives to the current austerity policies, each involving expansionary fiscal policy:

•  Trump’s policies of tax cuts combined with some increase in infrastructure spending. The problems with this are that there would be too little of the public infrastructure spending that the US economy needs and that the stimulus would be poorly focused.
•  Government taking advantage of exceptionally low interest rates to borrow to invest in infrastructure. “Governments could do this without alarming the markets, Keynes says, if they followed his teachings and borrowed solely to invest.”
•  Use money created through quantitative easing to finance public-sector investment in infrastructure and housing. “Building homes with QE makes sense; inflating house prices with QE does not.” (See the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy and Global warning).

Increased government spending on infrastructure has been recommended by international organisations, such as the OECD and the IMF (see OECD goes public and The world economic outlook – as seen by the IMF). With the rise in populism and worries about low economic growth throughout much of the developed world, perhaps Keynesian fiscal policy will become more popular with governments.

Article
Keynesian economics: is it time for the theory to rise from the dead?, The Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/12/16)

Questions

  1. What are the main factors determining a country’s long-term rate of economic growth?
  2. What are the benefits and limitations of using fiscal policy to raise global economic growth?
  3. What are the benefits and limitations of using new money created by the central bank to fund infrastructure spending?
  4. Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
  5. Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
  6. Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
  7. Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
  8. What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
  9. What supply-side policies could the government adopt to back up monetary and fiscal policy? Are the there lessons here from the Japanese government’s ‘three arrows’?
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A more active fiscal policy? Changing the rule book

In his 2016 Autumn Statement, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced that he was abandoning his predecessor’s target of achieving a budget surplus in 2019/20 and beyond. This was partly in recognition that tax revenues were likely to be down as economic growth forecasts were downgraded by the Office for Budget Responsibility. But it was partly to give himself more room to boost the economy in response to lower economic growth. In other words, he was moving from a strictly rules-based fiscal policy to one that is more interventionist.

Although he still has the broad target of reducing government borrowing over the longer term, this new flexibility allowed him to announce increased government spending on infrastructure.

The new approach is outlined in the updated version of the Charter for Budget
Responsibility
, published alongside the Autumn Statement. The government’s fiscal mandate would now include the following:

 •  a target to reduce cyclically-adjusted public-sector net borrowing to below 2% of GDP by 2020/21;
 •  a target for public-sector net debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling in 2020/21.

It also states that:

In the event of a significant negative shock to the UK economy, the Treasury will review the appropriateness of the fiscal mandate and supplementary targets as a means of returning the public finances to balance as early as possible in the next Parliament.

In the Autumn Statement, the new approach to fiscal policy is summarised as follows:

This new fiscal framework ensures the public finances continue on the path to sustainability, while providing the flexibility needed to support the economy in the near term.

With his new found freedom, the Chancellor was able to announce spending increases, despite deteriorating public finances, of £36bn by 2021/22 (see Table 1 in the Autumn Statement).

Most of the additional expenditure will be on infrastructure. To facilitate this, the government will set up a new National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) to channel government spending to various infrastructure projects in the fields of housing, transport, telecoms and research and development. The NPIF will provide £23bn to such projects between 2017/18 and 2021/22.

But much of the additional flexibility in the new Fiscal Mandate will be to allow automatic fiscal stabilisers to operate. The OBR forecasts an increase in borrowing of £122bn over the 2017/18 to 2021/22 period compared with its forecasts made in March this year. Apart from the additional £23bn spending on infrastructure, most of the rest will be as a result of lower tax receipts from lower economic growth. This, in turn, is forecast to be the result of lower investment caused by Brexit uncertainties and lower real consumer spending because of the fall in the pound and the consequent rise in prices.

But rather than having to tighten fiscal policy to meet the previous borrowing target, the new Fiscal Mandate will permit this rise in borrowing. The lower tax payments will help to reduce the dampening effect on the economy.

So are we entering a new era of fiscal policy? Is the government now using discretionary fiscal policy to boost aggregate demand, while also attempting to increase productivity? Or is the relaxation of the Fiscal Mandate just a redrawing of the rules to give a bit more flexibility over the level of stimulus the government can give the economy?

Videos
Autumn Statement 2016: Philip Hammond’s speech (in full) GOV.UK (23/11/16)
Philip Hammond’s autumn statement – video highlights The Guardian (23/11/16)
Key points from the chancellor’s first Autumn Statement BBC News, Andrew Neil (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement: higher borrowing, lower growth Channel 4 News, Helia Ebrahimi (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement: Chancellor’s growth and borrowing figures BBC News (23/11/16)
Markets react to Autumn Statement Financial Times on YouTube, Roger Blitz (23/11/16)
Hammond’s Autumn Statement unpicked Financial Times on YouTube, Gemma Tetlow (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016: The charts that show the cost of Brexit Sjy News, Ed Conway (24/11/16)
BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed on the Autumn Statement. BBC News (23/11/16)
Autumn statement: debate Channel 4 News, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jane Ellison, and Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, Clive Lewis (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement: Workers’ pay growth prospects dreadful, says IFS BBC News, Kevin Peachey and Paul Johnson (24/11/16)

Articles
Autumn Statement 2016: Expert comment on fiscal policy Grant Thornton, Adam Jackson (23/11/16)
Philip Hammond loosens George Osborne’s fiscal rules to give himself more elbow room as Brexit unfolds CityA.M., Jasper Jolly (23/11/16)
Britain’s New Fiscal Mandate Opens Way To Invest For Economic Growth Forbes, Linda Yueh (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016: experts respond The Conversation (23/11/16)
Chancellor’s ‘Reset’ Leaves UK Economy Exposed And Vulnerable Huffington Post, Alfie Stirling (23/11/16)
Britain’s Autumn Statement hints at how painful Brexit is going to be The Economist (26/11/16)
Chancellor’s looser finance targets highlight weaker UK economy The Guardian, Phillip Inman (24/11/16)
Hammond’s less-than-meets-the-eye plan that hints at the future Financial Times, Martin Sandbu (23/11/16)
Economists’ views on Philip Hammond’s debut Financial Times, Paul Johnson, Bronwyn Curtis and Gerard Lyons (24/11/16)

Government Publications
Autumn Statement 2016 HM Treasury (23/11/16)
Charter for Budget Responsibility: autumn 2016 update HM Treasury

Reports, forecasts and analysis
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (23/11/16)
Autumn Statement 2016 analysis Institute for Fiscal Studies (November 2016)

Questions

  1. Distinguish between discretionary fiscal policy and rules-based fiscal policy.
  2. Why have forecasts of the public finances worsened since last March?
  3. What is meant by automatic fiscal stabilisers? How do they work when the economic growth slows?
  4. What determines the size of the multiplier from public-sector infrastructure projects?
  5. What dangers are there in relaxing the borrowing rules in the Fiscal Mandate?
  6. Examine the arguments for relaxing the borrowing rules more than they have been?
  7. If the economy slows more than has been forecast and public-sector borrowing rises faster, does the Chancellor have any more discretion in giving a further fiscal boost to the economy?
  8. Does the adjustment of borrowing targets as the economic situation changes make such a policy a discretionary one rather than a rules-based one?
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The UK’s public finances

As the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, delivers his first Autumn statement, both the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) and the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) have published updated forecasts for government borrowing and government debt.

They show a rise in government borrowing compared with previous forecasts. The main reason for this is a likely slowdown in the rate of economic growth and hence in tax revenues, especially in 2017. Last March, the OBR forecast GDP growth of 2.2% for 2017; it has now revised this down to 1.4%.

This forecast slowdown is because of a likely decline in the growth of aggregate demand caused by a decline in investment as businesses become more cautious given the uncertainty about the UK’s relationships with the rest of the world post Brexit. There is also likely to be a slowdown in real consumer expenditure as inflation rises following the fall in the pound of around 15%.

But what might be more surprising is that the public finances are not forecast to deteriorate even further. The OBR forecasts that the deficit will increase by a total of £122bn to £216bn over the period from 2016/17 to 2020/21. The NIESR predicts that it will rise by only £50bn to £187bn – but this is before the additional infrastructure spending and other measures announced in the Autumn Statement.

One reason is looser monetary policy. Following the Brexit vote, the Bank of England cut Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% and introduced further quantitative easing. This makes it cheaper to finance government borrowing. What is more, the additional holdings of bonds by the Bank mean that the Bank returns to the government much of the interest (coupon payments) that would otherwise have been paid to the private sector.

Then, depending on the nature of the UK’s post-Brexit relationships with the EU, there could be savings in contributions to the EU budget – but just how much, no-one knows at this stage.

Finally, it depends on just what effects the measures announced in the Autumn Statement will have on tax revenues and government spending. We will examine this in a separate blog.

But even though public-sector borrowing is likely to fall more slowly than before the Brexit vote, the trajectory is still downward. Indeed, the previous Chancellor, George Osborne, had set a target of achieving a public-sector surplus by 2019/20.

But, would eventually bringing the public finances into surplus be desirable? Apart from the dampening effect on aggregate demand, such a policy could lead to underinvestment in infrastructure and other public-sector capital. There is thus a strong argument for continuing to run a deficit on the public-sector capital account to fund public-sector investment – such investment will increase incomes and social wellbeing in the future. It makes sense for the government to borrow for investment, just as it makes sense for the private sector to do so.

Articles
Autumn Statement: Why the damage to the public finances from Brexit might not be as bad as some think Independent, Simon Kirby (22/11/16)
Three Facts about Debt and Deficits NIESR blogs, R Farmer (21/11/16)
Autumn Statement: Big increase in borrowing predicted BBC News, Anthony Reuben (23/11/16)

Data
Economic and fiscal outlook – November 2016 Office for Budget Responsibility (23/11/16)

Questions

  1. Why have the public finances deteriorated?
  2. How much have they deteriorated?
  3. What is likely to happen to economic growth over the next couple of years? Explain why.
  4. How has the cut in Bank Rate and additional quantitative easing introduced after the Brexit vote affected government borrowing?
  5. What is likely to happen to (a) public-sector borrowing; (b) public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP over the next few years?
  6. Why is a running a Budget surplus neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for reducing the government debt to GDP ratio.
  7. What are the arguments for (a) having a positive public-sector debt; (b) increasing public-sector debt as a result of increased spending on infrastructure and other forms of public-sector capital?
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Don’t bank on Italy’s economy

The Brexit vote has caused shockwaves throughout European economies. But there is a potentially larger economic and political problem facing the EU and the eurozone more specifically. And that is the state of the Italian banking system and the Italian economy.

Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone after Germany and France. Any serious economic weaknesses could have profound consequences for the rest of the eurozone and beyond.

At 135% of GDP, Italy’s public-sector debt is one the highest in the world; its banks are undercapitalised with a high proportion of bad debt; and it is still struggling to recover from the crisis of 2008–9. The Economist article elaborates:

The adult employment rate is lower than in any EU country bar Greece. The economy has been moribund for years, suffocated by over-regulation and feeble productivity. Amid stagnation and deflation, Italy’s banks are in deep trouble, burdened by some €360 billion of souring loans, the equivalent of a fifth of the country’s GDP. Collectively they have provisioned for only 45% of that amount. At best, Italy’s weak banks will throttle the country’s growth; at worst, some will go bust.

Since 2007, the economy has shrunk by 10%. And potential output has fallen too, as firms have closed. Unemployment is over 11%, with youth unemployment around 40%.

Things seem to be coming to a head. As confidence in the Italian banking system plummets, the Italian government would like to bail out the banks to try to restore confidence and encourage deposits and lending. But under new eurozone rules designed to protect taxpayers, it requires that the first line of support should be from bondholders. Such support is known as a ‘bail-in’.

If bondholders were large institutional investors, this might not be such a problem, but a significant proportion of bank bonds in Italy are held by small investors, encouraged to do so by tax relief. Bailing in the banks by requiring bondholders to bear significant losses in the value of their bonds could undermine the savings of many Italians and cause them severe hardship, especially those who had saved for their retirement.

So what is the solution? Italian banks need recapitalising to restore confidence and prevent a more serious crisis. However, there is limited scope for bailing in, unless small investors can be protected. And eurozone rules provide little scope for government funding for the banks. These rules should be relaxed under extreme circumstances. At the same time, policy needs to focus on making Italian banking more efficient.

Meanwhile, the IMF is forecasting that Italian economic growth will be less than 1% this year and little better in 2017. Part of the problem, claims the IMF, is the Brexit vote. This has heightened financial market volatility and increasead the risks for Italy with its fragile banking system. But the problems of the Italian economy run deeper and will require various supply-side policies to tackle low productivity, corruption, public-sector inefficiency and a financial system not fit for purpose. What the mix of these policies should be – whether market based or interventionist – is not just a question of effectiveness, but of political viability and democratic support.

Articles
The Italian Job The Economist (9/7/16)
IMF warns Italy of two-decade-long recessionThe Guardian, Larry Elliott (11/7/16)
Italy economy: IMF says country has ‘two lost decades’ of growth BBC News (12/7/16)
What’s the problem with Italian banks? BBC News, Andrew Walker (10/7/16)
Why Italy’s banking crisis will shake the eurozone to its core The Telegraph, Tim Wallace Szu Ping Chan (16/8/16)
If You Thought Brexit Was Bad Wait Until The Italian Banks All Go Bust Forbes, Tim Worstall (17/7/16)
In the euro zone’s latest crisis, Italy is torn between saving the banks or saving its people Quartz, Cassie Werber (13/7/16)
Why Italy could be the next European country to face an economic crisis Vox, Timothy B. Lee (8/7/16)
Forget Brexit, Quitaly is Europe’s next worry The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/7/16)

Report
Italy IMF Country Report No. 16/222 (July 2016)

Data
Economic Outlook OECD (June 2016) (select ‘By country’ from the left-hand panel and then choose ‘Italy’ from the pull-down menu and choose appropriate time series)

Questions

  1. Can changes in aggregate demand have supply-side consequences? Explain.
  2. Explain why there may be a downward spiral of asset sales by banks.
  3. How might the principle of bail-ins for undercapitalised Italian banks be pursued without being at the expense of the small saver?
  4. What lessons are there from Japan’s ‘three arrows’ for Italy? Does being in the eurozone constrain Italy’s ability to adopt any or all of these three categories of policy?
  5. Why may the Brexit vote have more serious consequences for Italy than many other European economies?
  6. Find out what reforms have already been adopted or are being pursued by the Italian government. How successful are they likely to be in increasing Italian growth and productivity?
  7. What external factors are currently (a) favourable, (b) unfavourable to improving Italian growth and 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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Hitting – or missing – the government’s self-imposed fiscal targets

On election to office in May 2015, the UK’s Conservative government set new fiscal targets. These were set out in an updated Charter for Budget Responsibility. As Box 12.3 in Essentials of Economics (7th edition) states:

The new fiscal mandate set a target for achieving a surplus on public-sector net borrowing by the end of 2019/20. More controversially, government should then target a surplus in each subsequent year unless real GDP growth falls below 1 per cent … Meanwhile, the revised supplementary target for public-sector debt was for the net debt-to-GDP ratio to fall each year from 2015/16 to 2019/20.

What is more, the Charter requires the government to set a cap on welfare spending over a five-year period. Such spending includes spending on pensions, tax credits, child benefit and unemployment benefit. In July 2015 the Chancellor set this cap at £115bn for 2016/17, a reduction of £12bn.

Whether or not such a tight fiscal target is desirable, the government has been missing the target. In November last year, the Chancellor had to backtrack on his plans to make substantial reductions in tax credits and as a result the welfare cap has been breached, as the following table from page 5 of the December 2015 House of Commons briefing paper shows.

Also, with the slowing of economic growth, the Chancellor has stated that he will miss the requirement for a fall in the net debt-to-GDP ratio unless further cuts in government spending are made, equivalent to 50p in every £100.

But, if the economy is slowing, is it right to cut government expenditure? In other words, should there be some discretion in fiscal policy to respond to economic circumstances? There are two issues here. The first is whether the resulting cut in aggregate demand will be detrimental to growth. The second is who will bear the cost of such cuts. Critics of the government claim that it will largely the poor who will lose if the cuts are made mainly from benefits.

The articles below examine the public finances, the difficulties George Osborne has been facing in sticking to his fiscal mandate and the options open to him.

Articles
Budget 2016: Osborne’s economic fitness regime BBC News, Andy Verity (14/3/16)
Budget 2016: George Osborne fuels speculation of nasty shocks The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Anushka Asthana (14/3/16)

Official publications
Charter for Budget Responsibility: Summer Budget 2015 update HM Treasury (July 2015)
OBR publications, including ‘Economic and fiscal outlook’ and ‘Fiscal sustainability report’ Office for Budget Responsibility

Questions

  1. Outline the main points of the Charter for Budget Responsibility (CBR).
  2. What are the arguments for sticking to fiscal rules, such as those in the CBR?
  3. What are the arguments for using discretion to adjust fiscal policy as economic circumstances change?
  4. Compare the Conservative government’s fiscal mandate with the newly announced approach to fiscal policy of the Labour opposition?
  5. How does the Labour Party’s new approach differ from the Golden Rule followed by Gordon Brown as Chancellor in the Labour government from 1997 to 2007?
  6. What factors will determine whether or not the government will return to meeting the rules set out in the Charter for Budget Responsibility?
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What would Keynes say?

Here are two thought-provoking articles from The Guardian. They look at macroeconomic policy failures and at the likely consequences.

In first article, Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s Economics Editor, argues that Keynesian expansionary fiscal and monetary policy by the USA has allowed it to achieve much more rapid recovery than Europe, which, by contrast, has chosen to follow fiscal austerity policies and only recently mildly expansionary monetary policy through a belated QE programme.

In the UK, the recovery has been more significant than in the eurozone because of the expansionary monetary policies pursued by the Bank of England in its quantitative easing programme. ‘And when it came to fiscal policy, George Osborne quietly abandoned his original deficit reduction targets when the deleterious impact of an over-aggressive austerity strategy became apparent.’

So, according to Larry Elliott, Europe should ease up on austerity and governments should invest more though increased borrowing.

‘This is textbook Keynesian stuff. Unemployment is high, which means businesses are reluctant to invest. The lack of investment means that demand for new loans is weak. The weakness of demand for loans means that driving down the cost of borrowing through QE will have little impact. Therefore, it is up to the state to break into the vicious circle by investing itself, something it can do cheaply and – because there are so many people unemployed and businesses working well below full capacity – without the risk of inflation.’

In the second article, Paul Mason, the Economics Editor at Channel 4 News, points to the large increases in both public- and private- sector debt since 2007, despite the recession. Such debt, he argues, is becoming unsustainable and hence the world could be on the cusp of another crash.

Mason quotes from the Bank for International Settlements Quarterly Review September 2015 – media briefing. In this briefing, Claudio Borio,
Head of the Monetary & Economic Department, argues that:

‘Since at least 2009, domestic vulnerabilities have developed in several emerging market economies (EMEs), including some of the largest, and to a lesser extent even in some advanced economies, notably commodity exporters. In particular, these countries have exhibited signs of a build-up of financial imbalances, in the form of outsize credit booms alongside strong increases in asset prices, especially property prices, supported by unusually easy global liquidity conditions. It is the coincidence of the reversal of these booms with external vulnerabilities that should be watched most closely.’

We have already seen a fall in commodity prices, reflecting the underlying lack of demand, and large fluctuations in stock markets. The Chinese economy is slowing markedly, as are several other EMEs, and Europe and Japan are struggling to recover, despite their QE programmes. The USA is no longer engaging in QE and there are growing worries about a US slowdown as growth in the rest of the world slows. Mason, quoting the BIS briefing, states that:

‘In short, as the BIS economists put it, this is “a world in which debt levels are too high, productivity growth too weak and financial risks too threatening”. It’s impossible to extrapolate from all this the date the crash will happen, or the form it will take. All we know is there is a mismatch between rising credit, falling growth, trade and prices, and a febrile financial market, which, at present, keeps switchback riding as money flows from one sector, or geographic region, to another.’

So should there be more expansionary policy, or should rising debt levels be reduced by tighter monetary policy? Read the articles and then consider the questions.

I told you so. Obama right and Europe wrong about way out of Great Recession The Guardian, Larry Elliott (1/11/15)
Apocalypse now: has the next giant financial crash already begun? The Guardian, Paul Mason (1/11/15)

Questions

  1. To what extent do the two articles (a) agree and (b) disagree?
  2. How might a neo-liberal economist reply to the argument that what is needed is more expansionary fiscal and monetary policies?
  3. What is the transmission mechanism whereby quantitative easing affects real output? Is it a reliable mechanism for policymakers?
  4. What would make a financial crash less likely? Is this something that governments or central banks can influence?
  5. Why has productivity growth been so low in many countries? What would increase it?
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A deus ex machina at last?

It was argued in an earlier blog on the Greek debt crisis that a deus ex machina was needed to find a resolution to the impasse between Greece and its creditors. The most likely candidate for such as role was the IMF.

Three days before the Greek referendum on whether or not to accept the Troika’s proposals, the IMF has stepped onto the stage. To the undoubted surprise of the other two partners in the Troika (the European Commission and the ECB), the IMF argues that Greece’s debts are unsustainable and that much more is needed than a mere bailout (which simply rolls over the debt).

According to the IMF, Greece needs €52bn of extra funds between October 2015 and December 2018, large-scale debt relief, a 20-year grace period before making any debt repayments and then debt repayments spread over the following 20 years. In return, Greece should commit to supply-side reforms to cut out waste, reduce bureaucracy, improve tax collection methods and generally improve the efficiency of the economic system.

It would also have to agree to the previously proposed primary budget surplus (i.e. the budget surplus excluding debt repayments) of 1 per cent of GDP this year, rising to 3.5 per cent in 2018.

So it this what commentators have been waiting for? What will be the reaction of the Greeks and the other two partners in the Troika? We shall see.

Articles
IMF says Greece needs extra €50bn in funds and debt relief The Guardian. Phillip Inman, Larry Elliott and Alberto Nardelli (2/7/15)
IMF: 3rd Greek bailout would cost €52bn. Or more? Financial Times, Peter Spiegel (2/7/15)
IMF: Greece needs to reform for sustainable debt, financing needs rising CNBC, Everett Rosenfeld (2/7/15)
The IMF has made an obvious point about Greece’s huge debt. Here’s why it still matters Quartz, Jason Karaian (3/7/15)
Greece: when is it time to forgive debt? The Conversation, Jagjit Chadha (2/7/15)

IMF Analysis
Greece: Preliminary Draft Debt Sustainability Analysis IMF (2/7/15)
Preliminary Debt Sustainability Analysis for Greece IMF (25/6/15)

Questions

  1. To which organisations is Greece indebted? What form to the debts take?
  2. To what extent is Greece’s current debt burden the result of design faults of the euro?
  3. What are the proposals of the IMF? What effect will they have on the Greek economy if accepted?
  4. How would the IMF proposals affect aggregate demand (a) directly; (b) compared with the proposals previously on the table that Greece rejected on 26 June?
  5. What would be the effects of Greek exit from the euro (a) for Greece; (b) for other eurozone countries?
  6. What bargaining chips can Greece deploy in the negotiations?
  7. Explain what is meant by ‘moral hazard’. Where in possible outcomes to the negotiations may there be moral hazard?
  8. What has been the impact of Greek austerity measures on the distribution of income and wealth in Greece?
  9. What are the practicalities of pursuing supply-side policies in Greece without further dampening aggregate demand?
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Imposing a new fiscal straitjacket

In his annual Mansion House speech to business leaders on 10 June 2015, George Osborne announced a new fiscal framework. This would require governments in ‘normal times’ to run a budget surplus. Details of the new framework would be spelt out in the extraordinary Budget, due on 8 July.

If by ‘normal times’ is meant years when the economy is growing, then this new fiscal rule would mean that in most years governments would be require to run a surplus. This would reduce general government debt.

And it would eventually reduce the debt from the forecast ratio of 89% of GDP for 2015 to the target of no more than 60% set for member states under the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. Currently, many countries are in breach of this target, although the Pact permits countries to have a ratio above 60% provided it is falling towards 60% at an acceptable rate. The chart shows in pink those countries that were in breach in 2014. They include the UK.

Sweden and Canada have similar rules to that proposed by George Osborne, and he sees them as having been more able to use expansionary fiscal policy in emergency times, such as in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/8, without running excessive deficits.

Critics have argued, however, that running a surplus whenever there is economic growth would dampen recovery if growth is sluggish. This makes the rule very different from merely requiring that, over the course of the business cycle, there is a budget balance. Under that rule, years of deficit are counterbalanced by years of surplus, making fiscal policy neutral over the cycle. With a requirement for a surplus in most years, however, fiscal policy would have a net dampening effect over the cycle. The chancellor hopes that this would be countered by increased demand in the private sector and from exports.

The rule is even more different from the Coalition government’s previous ‘fiscal mandate‘, which was for a ‘a forward-looking target to achieve cyclically-adjusted current balance by the end of the rolling, five-year forecast period’. The current budget excludes investment expenditure on items such as transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools. The fiscal mandate was very similar to the former Labour government’s ‘Golden rule’, which was to achieve a current budget balance over the course of the cycle.

By excluding public-sector investment from the target, as was previously done, it can allow borrowing to continue for such investment, even when there is a substantial deficit. This, in turn, can help to increase aggregate supply by improving infrastructure and has less of a dampening effect on aggregate demand. A worry about the new rule is that it could lead to further erosion of public-sector investment, which can be seen as vital to long-term growth and development of the economy. Indeed, Sweden decided in March this year to abandon its surplus rule to allow government borrowing to fund investment.

The podcasts and articles below consider the implications of the new rule for both aggregate demand and aggregate supply and whether adherence to the rule will help to increase or decrease economic growth over the longer term.

Video and audio podcasts
George Osborne confirms budget surplus law Channel 4 News, Gary Gibbon (10/6/15)
Osborne To Push Through Budget Surplus Rules Sky News (10/6/15)
OECD On Osborne’s Fiscal Plans Sky News, Catherine Mann (10/6/15)
‘Outright fiscal madness’ Osborne’s Mansion House Speech RT UK on YouTube, Harry Fear (11/6/15)
A “straightjacket” [sic] on future government spending? BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston; Nigel Lawson (11/6/15)
Thursday’s business with Simon Jack BBC Today Programme, Gerard Lyons (12/6/15)

Articles
Osborne seeks to bind successors to budget surplus goal Reuters, David Milliken (10/6/15)
George Osborne to push ahead with budget surplus law The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (10/6/15)
Osborne Wants U.K. to Build Treasure Chest During Good Times Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (10/6/15)
Questions over Osborne’s Victorian-era budget plans BBC News (10/6/15)
Years more spending cuts to come, says OBR BBC News (11/6/15)
Is Chancellor right to want surplus in normal times? BBC News, Robert Peston (10/6/15)
George Osborne Unveils New Budget Surplus Law, But Critics Warn It Means Needless Cuts Huffington Post, Paul Waugh (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s fiscal handcuffs are political, but he does have a point Independent, Hamish McRae (11/6/15)
Osborne’s budget surplus law follows UK tradition of moving goalposts Financial Times, Chris Giles (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s budget surplus rule is nonsense and it could haunt Britain for decades Business Insider, Malaysia, Mike Bird (10/6/15)
To cut a way out of recession we need growth, not austerity economics Herald Scotland, Iain Macwhirter (11/6/15)
George Osborne moves to peg public finances to Victorian values The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Frances Perraudin (10/6/15)
The Guardian view on George Osborne’s fiscal surplus law: the Micawber delusion The Guardian, Editorial (10/6/15)
Academics attack George Osborne budget surplus proposal The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/6/15)
Osborne plan has no basis in economics Guardian letters, multiple signatories (12/6/15)
Is there an optimal debt-to-GDP ratio? Vox EU, Anis Chowdhury and Iyanatul Islam
No basis in economics Mainly Macro, Simon Wren-Lewis (16/6/15)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by a ‘cyclically adjusted current budget balance’.
  2. How does the speed with which the government reduces the public-sector debt affect aggregate demand and aggregate supply?
  3. What are the arguments for and against running a budget surplus: (a) when there is currently a large budget deficit; (b) when there is already a budget surplus? How do the arguments depend on the stage of the business cycle?
  4. Do you agree with the statement that ‘the biggest issue with the UK economy right now is not the government deficit’. If so, what bigger issues are there?
  5. How could public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP decline without the government running a budget surplus?
  6. How might the term ‘normal times’ be defined? How does the definition used by the Chancellor affect the rate at which the public-sector debt is reduced?
  7. How sustainable is the current level of public-sector debt? How does its sustainability relate to the interest rate on long-term government bonds?
  8. If there is a budget surplus, such that GT is negative, what can we say about the balance betwen (I + X) and (S + M)? What good and adverse consequences could follow?
  9. Why do George Osborne’s plans for budget surpluses ‘risk a liquidity crisis that could also trigger banking problems, a fall in GDP, a crash, or all three’?
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