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Posts Tagged ‘public-sector deficit’

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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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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Deficit plans: clear or vague?

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

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

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

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



According to Carl Emmerson, IFS deputy director:

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

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

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

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

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

Questions

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

Since coming to office two years ago, Shinzo Abe’s government has been determined to revive the Japanese economy. The policy has involved ‘three arrows‘: expansionary fiscal policy, expansionary monetary policy and supply-side reforms. But figures just out show that the Japanese economy is back in recession. The economy shrank by 0.4% in quarter 3, having shrunk by 1.9% in quarter 2.

This has come as a huge disappointment for Mr Abe, who has staked his political reputation on escaping from deflation and achieving sustained economic growth. In response, he has called a general election to put a revised economic plan to the electorate.

The main cause of the reversal into recession has been an increase in the sales tax on all goods, which has dampened spending. The tax rise, planned by the previous government, was to help reduce the deficit and start tackling the huge public-sector debt, which, at over 230% of GDP, is by far the highest in the developed world. Another rise in sales tax is due in October 2015 – from 8% to 10%. Mr Abe hopes to cancel the rise and it is this that he may put to the electorate.

So what is the outlook for Japan? Will quarter 4 show economic growth, or will pessimism have set in? Will the Bank of Japan introduce even more quantitative easing, or will it wait for the latest increase in QE to take effect (see the blog post, All eased out: at least for the USA and UK)?

The following articles look at the implications of the latest news, both for Japan and globally, and at the options for the government and central bank.

Articles
Japanese economy falls into surprise recession Independent, Maria Tadeo (17/11/14)
Japan’s economy makes surprise fall into recession BBC News (17/11/14)
Coming to a crunch: Time is running out for Abenomics The Economist (20/11/14)
Japan’s economy: Delay the second consumption tax hike The Economist (17/11/14)
Defying Expectations, Japan’s Economy Falls Into Recession New York Times, Jonathan Soble (16/11/14)
Japan shocks as economy slips into recession CNBC, Li Anne Wong (17/11/14)
Japan Unexpectedly Enters Recession as Abe Weighs Tax: Economy Bloomberg, Keiko Ujikane and Toru Fujioka (17/11/14)
The world should be wary: Japan’s economic woes are contagious The Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/11/14)
Why is Japan heading to the polls? BBC News (18/11/14)

Previous news items on this site
A new economic road for Japan? (January 2013)
A J-curve for Japan? (May 2013)
Japan’s three arrows (June 2013)
Abenomics – one year on (December 2013)
Japan’s recovery (January 2014)
Japan’s CPI: An Update (May 2014)
All eased out: at least for the USA and UK (November 2014)

Data
Quarterly Estimates of GDP Japanese Cabinet Office
Japan and the IMF IMF Country Reports
Economic Outlook Annex Tables OECD

Questions

  1. Give details of the Japanese government’s three arrows.
  2. Discuss the pros and cons of the rise in the sales tax. Is it possible for the rise in the sales tax to increase the size of the public-sector deficit?
  3. What have been the effects of Japanese government policies on (a) prices of goods and services; (b) living standards; (c) asset prices?
  4. Who have been the gainers and losers of the policies?
  5. How is the Japanese situation likely to effect the value of the yen? How is this, in turn, likely to affect its trading partners? Could this set off a chain reaction?
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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The French economy is flatlining. It has just recorded the second quarter of zero economic growth, with growth averaging just 0.02% over the past 12 months. What is more, the budget deficit is rising, not falling. In April this year, the French finance minister said that the deficit would fall from 4.3% in 2013 to 3.8% in 2014 and to the eurozone ceiling of 3% in 2015. He is now predicting that it will rise this year to 4.4% and not reach the 3% target until 2017.

The deficit is rising because a flatlining economy is not generating sufficient tax revenues. What is more, expenditure on unemployment benefits and other social protection is rising as unemployment has risen, now standing at a record 10.3%.

And it is not just the current economic situation that is poor; the outlook is poor too. The confidence of French companies is low and falling, and investment plans are muted. President Hollande has pledged to cut payroll taxes to help firms, but so far this has not encouraged firms to invest more.

So what can the French government do? And what can the EU as a whole do to help revive not just the French economy but most of the rest of the eurozone, which is also suffering from zero, or near zero, growth?

There are two quite different sets of remedies being proposed.

The first comes from the German government and increasingly from the French government too. This is to stick to the austerity plans: to get the deficit down; to reduce the size of government in order to prevent crowding out; and to institute market-orientated supply-side policies that are business friendly, such as reducing business regulation. Business leaders in France, who generally back this approach, have called for reducing the number of public holidays and scrapping the maximum 35-hour working week. They are also seeking reduced business taxes, financed by reducing various benefits.

Increasingly President Hollande is moving towards a more business-friendly set of policies. Under his government’s ‘Responsibility Pact’, a €40 billion package of tax breaks for business will be financed through €50 billion of cuts in public spending. To carry through these policies he has appointed an ex-investment banker, Emmanuel Macron, as economy minister. He replaces Arnaud Montebourg, who roundly criticised government austerity policy and called for policies to boost aggregate demand.

This brings us to the alternative set of remedies. These focus on stimulating aggregate demand through greater infrastructure investment and cutting taxes more generally (not just for business). The central argument is that growth must come first and that this will then generate the tax revenues and reductions in unemployment that will then allow the deficit to be brought down. Only when economic growth is firmly established should measures be taken to cut government expenditure in an attempt to reduce the structural deficit.

There are also compromise policies being proposed from the centre. These include measures to stimulate aggregate demand, mainly through tax cuts, accompanied by supply-side policies, whether market orientated or interventionist.

As Europe continues to struggle to achieve recovery, so the debate is getting harsher. Monetary policy alone may not be sufficient to bring recovery. Although the ECB has taken a number of measures to stimulate demand, so far they have been to little avail. As long as business confidence remains low, making increased liquidity available to banks at interest rates close to zero will not make banks more willing to lend to business, or businesses more willing to borrow. Calls for an end, or at least a temporary halt, to austerity are thus getting louder. At the same time, calls for sticking to austerity and tackling excessive government spending are also getting louder.

Articles
Hollande entrusts French economy to ex-banker Macron Reuters, Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey (26/8/14)
France’s new Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron described by left-wingers as a ‘copy-and-paste Tony Blair’ Independent, John Lichfield (28/8/14)
Merkel praises France’s economic reform plans after Berlin talks with PM Valls Deutsche Welle (22/9/14)
French economy flat-lines as business activity falters Reuters, Leigh Thomas (23/9/14)
French public finances: Rétropédalage The Economist (13/9/14)
French employer group urges ‘shock therapy’ for economy Reuters (24/9/14)
Last chance to save France: loosen 35-hour week and cut public holidays, say bosses The Telegraph (24/9/14)
‘Sick’ France’s economy is stricken by unemployment ‘fever’ The Telegraph (17/9/14)
France’s economics ills worsen but all remedies appear unpalatable The Observer, Larry Elliott and Anne Penketh (31/8/14)
The Fall of France The New York Times, Paul Krugman (28/8/14)
Why Europe is terrified of deflation Salon, Paul Ames (20/9/14)
Europe’s Greater Depression is worse than the 1930s The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (14/8/14)
Worse than the 1930s: Europe’s recession is really a depression The Washington Post, Matt O’Brien (20/8/14)
Eurozone business growth slows in September, PMI survey finds BBC News (23/9/14)
Europe must ‘boost demand’ to revive economy, US warns BBC News (21/9/14)
Valls says France would never ask Germany to solve its problems Reuters, Annika Breidthardt and Michelle Martin (23/9/14)
The euro-zone economy: Asset-backed indolence The Economist (11/9/14)

Data
Annual macro-economic database (AMECO) Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
Business and Consumer Surveys Times Series Economic and Financial Affairs DG, European Commission
StatExtracts OECD
Statistics database European Central Bank

Questions

  1. What types of supply-side reforms would be consistent with the German government’s vision of solving Europe’s low growth problem?
  2. How could a Keynesian policy of reflation be consistent with getting France’s deficit down to the 3% of GDP limit as specified in the Stability and Growth Pact (see)?
  3. What is meant by (a) financial crowding out and (b) resource crowding out? Would reflationary fiscal policy in France lead to either form of crowding out? How would it be affected by the monetary stance of the ECB?
  4. Give examples of market-orientated and interventionist supply-side policies.
  5. What is meant by the terms ‘cyclical budget deficit’ and ‘structural budget deficit’. Could demand-side policy affect the structural deficit?
  6. Using the European Commission’s Business and Consumer Surveys find our what has happened to business and consumer confidence in France over the past few months.
  7. How important is business and consumer confidence in determining economic growth in (a) the short term and (b) the long term?
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A growing debt burden

The linked article below from The Guardian paints a disturbing picture of the long-term problem of servicing both private-sector and public-sector debts.

With interest rates at historical lows, the problem has been masked for the time being. But with interest rates set to rise within a few months, and significantly over the coming years, the burden of debt servicing is likely to become severe. This could have profound effects both on long-term economic growth and on the distribution of income.

As the author, Phillip Inman states:

The funding gap is growing and with deficits on so many fronts, it is hard to see how promises to pensioners and health service users can be met without a dash for growth that is unsustainable, a switch to dramatic cost-cutting in other areas or higher taxes on those who came through the recession relatively unscathed.

You are probably facing the problem of growing debt yourself. How long, if ever, will it take you to repay your student loans? What impact will this have on your ability to spend and to have a ‘decent’ standard of living? Will you be able to afford a mortgage large enough to buy a reasonable house or flat? Will you be able to afford to do a masters degree or PhD without support from your parents or relatives or without a scholarship? And even if you manage to secure a well-paid job, will you be able to afford a reasonable pension for when you eventually retire?

The article looks at the nature of the problem and its causes. It concludes by saying:

Britain has become expert at putting off decisions and hoping for something to turn up. Without a return to ultra-cheap commodities, another technological/productivity revolution, or a return to more modest living and delayed gratification, it’s a plan that is running out of time.

Article
Trouble in store: the grave future of British public and private debt The Guardian, Phillip Inman (20/7/14)

Report
Fiscal sustainability report Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report – Executive summary Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)
Fiscal sustainability report – Supplementary data series Office for Budget Responsibility (10/7/14)

Questions

  1. Why is public-sector debt likely to continue rising significantly over the coming years unless there is a concerted policy to make cuts in public expenditure?
  2. What factors are likely to lead to a rise in private-sector debt over the coming years?
  3. What factors have caused a redistribution from the younger to the older generation?
  4. How have ultra low interest rates affected the distribution of income?
  5. What is likely to happen to the gap in wages between ‘graduate’ jobs and ‘non-graduate’ jobs? Identify the factors likely to influence this gap?
  6. What is meant by ‘hire purchase’? Are leasing schemes for car purchase a form of ‘hire purchase? Are there similar schemes in the housing market?
  7. Does it matter if a country’s debts rise (either public or private) if the creditors are in the same country? Explain.
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It could be you

An excellent learning exercise for students of economics is to take a journal article that uses data to model the economy and then try to replicate the authors’ results. You may well be given an assignment like this in future years of your degree.

One such exercise is used on the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s doctoral programme in economics. Thomas Herndon is a student on that degree and chose to examine a well-known and highly influential paper, Growth in a Time of Debt by Carmen Reinhart then of the University of Maryland and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard University and former chief economist of the IMF. Professors Reinhart and Rogoff used new data on 44 countries spanning about 200 years.

A key finding of their paper, published in 2010 in the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, is that once a country’s government debt exceeds 90% of GDP, growth rates fall considerably: the median across countries by about 1% and the mean considerably more.

The paper has been hugely influential. It has been used to justify the austerity programmes being pursued in many countries, including the UK and the eurozone. Cutting the government deficit to GDP ratio, and ultimately the government debt to GDP ratio, has been seen as a way of achieving higher growth over the longer term, and justifies the adverse effect on short-term growth from the dampening of aggregate demand.

Well, this seemed an interesting paper for Thomas Herndon to examine, and he was keen to show just how Reinhart and Rogoff’s data led to their conclusions. But try as he might, he could not replicate their results. His initial reaction was to think he had made an error, but each time he checked he came back with the same conclusion: they must have made errors in their calculations.

His supervisor at Amherst, Professor Michael Ash, after Thomas had checked and checked again, realised that something was wrong. He encouraged Thomas to write to Reinhart and Rogoff to request sight of their dataset. They duly obliged and it was then that Thomas spotted various errors. These are explained in the articles below, but the overall effect was to alter the conclusion. Although high debt may undermine growth to some extent, the effect is much less than Reinhart and Rogoff concluded, and there are several exceptions to this rule.

On 15 April 2013, Thomas, along with his supervisor, Michael Ash and his colleague, Robert Pollin, published a response to the Reinhart and Rogoff paper. In the abstract to their paper, Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff they state that:

… coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics lead to serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and GDP growth among 20 advanced economies in the post-war period. They find that when properly calculated, the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not –0:1 percent as published in Reinhart and Rogoff. That is, contrary to RR, average GDP growth at public debt/GDP ratios over 90 percent is not dramatically different than when debt/GDP ratios are lower.

The authors also show how the relationship between public debt and GDP growth varies significantly by time period and country. Overall, the evidence we review contradicts Reinhart and Rogoff’s claim to have identified an important stylized fact, that public debt loads greater than 90 percent of GDP consistently reduce GDP growth.

So could this be you in the future? Will you take a famous paper and, by re-examining and reworking the data, find that its conclusions are wrong? Could you end up changing the world? Exciting stuff!

Podcasts
Austerity: A Spreadsheet Error? BBC, More or Less, Tim Harford (20/4/13)
Austerity justification study ‘inaccurate’ BBC Today Programme, Robert Pollin (18/4/13)

Articles
UMass Student Exposes Serious Flaws in Harvard Economists’ Influential Study The Atlantic Wire, J.K. Trotter (18/4/13)
Shocking Paper Claims That Microsoft Excel Coding Error Is Behind The Reinhart-Rogoff Study On Debt Business Insider, Mike Konczal (16/4/13)
How a student took on eminent economists on debt issue – and won Economic Times of India (19/4/13)
Meet the 28-Year-Old Grad Student Who Just Shook the Global Austerity Movement New York Magazine, Kevin Roose (19/4/13)
An economist’s mea culpa: I relied on Reinhart and Rogoff Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal blog, Miles Kimball (22/4/13)
The Rogoff-Reinhart data scandal reminds us economists aren’t gods The Guardian, Heidi Moore (18/4/13)
Reinhart, Rogoff… and Herndon: The student who caught out the profs BBC News Magazine, Ruth Alexander (20/4/13)
George Osborne’s case for austerity has just started to wobble The Guardian, Polly Toynbee (18/4/13)
The error that could subvert George Osborne’s austerity programme The Guardian, Charles Arthur and Phillip Inman (18/4/13)
The Excel depression Sydney Morning Herald, Paul Krugman (19/4/13)
Europe: Retreat from austerity BBC News, Gavin Hewitt (23/4/13)

Guest post by Thomas Herndon
The Grad Student Who Took Down Reinhart And Rogoff Explains Why They’re Fundamentally Wrong Business Insider, Thomas Herndon (22/4/13)

Papers
Growth in a Time of Debt NBER working paper, Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff (January 2010)
Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogo ff PERI Working Paper 322, Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash and Robert Pollin (April 2013)

Questions

  1. What were the particular errors made by Reinhart and Rogoff?
  2. How has their paper been used as a basis for the design of macroeconomic policy?
  3. What are the limitations of using even accurate time-series data as the basis for policy measures?
  4. How might the work of Herndon change the direction of future macroeconomic policy?
  5. In his guest post in Business Insider (see link above), Herndon wrote: ‘The implication for policy is that, under particular circumstances, public debt can play a key role in overcoming a recession.’ What might this role be?
  6. Why might we have to be cautious in drawing policy conclusions from Herndon’s work?
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The political dynamite of calm economic reflection

In a carefully argued article in the New Statesman, the UK Business Secretary, Vince Cable, considers the slow recovery in the economy and whether additional measures should be adopted. He sums up the current state of the economy as follows:

The British economy is still operating at levels around or below those before the 2008 financial crisis and roughly 15 per cent below an albeit unsustainable pre-crisis trend. There was next to no growth during 2012 and the prospect for 2013 is of very modest recovery.

Unsurprisingly there is vigorous debate as to what has gone wrong. And also what has gone right; unemployment has fallen as a result of a million (net) new jobs in the private sector and there is vigorous growth of new enterprises. Optimistic official growth forecasts and prophets of mass unemployment have both been confounded.

He argues that supply-side policies involving “a major and sustained commitment to skills, innovation and infrastructure investment” are essential if more rapid long-term growth is to be achieved. This is relatively uncontroversial.

But he also considers the claim that austerity has kept the economy from recovering and whether policies to tackle the negative output gap should be adopted, even if this means a short-term increase in government borrowing.

But crude Keynesian policies of expanding aggregate demand are both difficult to implement and may not take into account the particular circumstance of the current extended recession – or depression – in the UK and in many eurozone countries. World aggregate demand, however, is not deficient. In fact it is expanding quite rapidly, and with the sterling exchange rate index some 20% lower than before the financial crisis, this should give plenty of opportunity for UK exporters.

Yet expanding UK aggregate demand is proving difficult to achieve. Consumers, worried about falling real wages and large debts accumulated in the years of expansion, are reluctant to increase consumption and take on more debts, despite low interest rates. In the light of dampened consumer demand, firms are reluctant to invest. This makes monetary policy particularly ineffective, especially when banks have become more risk averse and wish to hold higher reserves, and indeed are under pressure to do so.

So what can be done? He argues that there is “some scope for more demand to boost output, particularly if the stimulus is targeted on supply bottlenecks such as infrastructure and skills.” In other words, he advocates policies that will simultaneously increase both aggregate demand and aggregate supply. Monetary policy, involving negative real interest rates and quantitative easing, has helped to prevent a larger fall in real aggregate demand and a deeper dive into recession, but the dampened demand for money and the desire by banks to build their reserves has meant a massive fall in the money multiplier. Perhaps monetary policy needs to be more aggressive still (see the blog post, Doves from above), but this may not be sufficient.

Which brings Dr Cable to the political dynamite! He advocates an increase in public investment on infrastructure (schools and colleges, hospitals, road and rail projects and housing, and considers whether this should be financed, not by switching government expenditure away from current spending, but by borrowing more.

Such a strategy does not undermine the central objective of reducing the structural deficit, and may assist it by reviving growth. It may complicate the secondary objective of reducing government debt relative to GDP because it entails more state borrowing; but in a weak economy, more public investment increases the numerator and the denominator.

He raises the question of whether the balance of risks has changed: away from the risk of increased short-term borrowing causing a collapse of confidence to the risk of lack of growth causing a deterioration in public finances and this causing a fall in confidence. As we saw in the blog post Moody Blues, the lack of growth has already caused one ratings agency (Moody’s) to downgrade the UK’s credit rating. The other two major agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch may well follow suit.

The day after Dr Cable’s article was published, David Cameron gave a speech saying that the government would stick to its plan of deficit reduction. Not surprisingly commentators interpreted this as a split in the Coalition. Carefully argued economics from Dr Cable it might have been, but political analysts have seen it as a hand grenade, as you will see from some of the articles below.

When the facts change, should I change my mind? New Statesman, Vince Cable (6/3/13)
Keynes would be on our side New Statesman, Vince Cable (12/1/11)
Exclusive: Vince Cable calls on Osborne to change direction New Statesman, George Eaton (67/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News (7/3/13)
Vince Cable makes direct challenge to Cameron over economic programme The Guardian, Nicholas Watt (7/3/13)
Vince Cable Says George Osborne Must Change Course And Borrow More To Revive Growth Huffington Post, Ned Simons (6/3/13)
David Cameron and Vince Cable at war over route to recovery Independent, Andrew Grice (6/3/13)
Vince Cable: Borrowing may not be as bad as slow growth BBC News, James Landale (6/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
David Cameron: We will hold firm on economy BBC News (7/3/13)
Clegg Backs Cable Over Controversial Economy Comments LBC Radio, Nick Clegg (7/3/13)
It’s plain what George Osborne needs to do – so just get on and do it The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (6/3/13)
Vince Cable’s plan B: a “matter of judgement” BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (7/3/13)
George Osborne needs to turn on the spending taps The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/3/13)

Questions

  1. Why has monetary policy proved ineffective in achieving a rapid recovery from recession?
  2. Distinguish between discretionary fiscal policy and automatic fiscal stabilisers.
  3. Why has the existence of automatic fiscal stabilisers meant that the public-sector deficit has been difficult to bring down?
  4. In what ways has the balance of risks in using discretionary fiscal policy changed over the past three years?
  5. In what ways is the depression of the late 2000s/early 2010s (a) similar to and (b) different from the Great Depression of the early 1930s?
  6. In what ways is the structure of public-sector debt in the UK different from that in many countries in the eurozone? Why does this give the government more scope for expansionary fiscal policy?
  7. Why does the Office of Budget Responsibility’s estimates of the tax and government expenditure multipliers suggest that “if fiscal policy is to work in a Keynesian manner, it needs to be targeted carefully, concentrating on capital projects”?
  8. Why did Keynes argue that monetary policy is ineffective at the zero bound (to use Dr Cable’s terminology)? Are we currently at the zero bound? If so what can be done?
  9. Has fiscal tightening more than offset loose monetary policy?
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