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.
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)
- Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
- Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
- For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
- Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.
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.
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)
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
- Outline the main points of the Charter for Budget Responsibility (CBR).
- What are the arguments for sticking to fiscal rules, such as those in the CBR?
- What are the arguments for using discretion to adjust fiscal policy as economic circumstances change?
- Compare the Conservative government’s fiscal mandate with the newly announced approach to fiscal policy of the Labour opposition?
- 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?
- What factors will determine whether or not the government will return to meeting the rules set out in the Charter for Budget Responsibility?
On 21 March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delivered the 2012 Budget for the UK. The details of the tax and benefit changes can be found in the Budget Report, with the Treasury’s summary of the tax changes here.
One of the key elements in the Budget was the reduction in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% from April 2013. The Chancellor argued that the introduction of the 50% rate in 2010 had raised very little extra tax revenue. Partly this was the result of people managing their tax affairs so that they could bring forward income to the year before the 50% rate was introduced – a practice known as forestalling. People are likely to do the reverse with the latest tax change and delay receiving income until next year. For details of the effects of forestalling, see the Office for Budget Responsibility’s Economic and fiscal outlook charts and tables Box 4.2a.
But part of the reason for the 50% tax rate raising relatively little has been the effect on incentives. A rise in the top rate of income tax can encourage people to move from the country – or move their incomes; it may discourage top earners from working more; it may encourage people to engage in various tax avoidance schemes; it may encourage people to evade taxes by not declaring all their income.
The effect of a rise (or fall) in the marginal income tax rate (t) on taxable income is given by the taxable income elasticity (TIE). This is defined as the proportionate change in taxable income (Y) divided by the proportionate change in the net-of-income-tax rate (r) (where r = 100 – t: i.e. the percentage of an extra pound that is not paid in income tax, but is retained by the taxpayer for spending or saving). TEI is thus ΔY/Y ÷ Δr/r. The larger the disincentive effect of raising taxes, the more will taxable income fall and hence the higher will be the value of TIE.
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) in 2010 based its calculations on a TIE of 0.35 for the rise in the top marginal rate of income tax from 40% to 50%. This means that for each 1% fall in the net-of-income-tax rate, taxable income would fall by 0.35%. With a TIE of 0.35, the OBR calculated that the new top rate would bring an extra £2.9bn per year by 2011-12 (after allowing for any temporary residual effects of forestalling). However, the OBR now believes that the TIE is significantly higher and that the 50% rate will bring only an extra £0.7bn in 2011/12.
In its analysis of the effects of a cut in the top rate from 50% to 45%, the OBR has assumed a TIE of 0.45.
Turning to the costing of the move to 45 per cent, measured against our baseline that reflects the new information on the 50 per cent yield, we have endorsed as reasonable and central the Government’s estimate that the underlying cost would be around £0.1 billion in 2013-14, based on an assumed TIE of 0.45. The figure is as low as this because a TIE of 0.45 implies that the revenue-maximising additional tax rate is around 48 per cent. Moving from just above to just below this rate would therefore have very little revenue impact. Moving the additional rate back to 40 per cent would take it further below the revenue maximising rate and would thus be more expensive at roughly an additional £600 million. But for the reasons set out above we would again emphasise the huge uncertainties here.
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2012 (p110)
The government’s arguments for reducing the top tax rate, therefore, are that it will have little effect on tax revenue, but would have a significant effect in encouraging inward investment, discouraging emigration of high earners and encouraging high earners to work more.
Rich tax cuts offset by changes to relief Financial Times, Vanessa Houlder (21/3/12)
Budget 2012: A big debate about small numbers (cont’d) BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (21/3/12)
Budget 2012: End of 50p tax, but 45p rate here to stay The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (21/3/12)
Budget 2012: Top income tax rate ‘won’t go any lower than 45p’ This is Money, Tim Shipman (22/3/12)
Why is tax avoidance a reason for letting people off tax? New Statesman, Alex Hern (22/3/12)
Study: Millionaires Don’t Flee States Due To Tax Hikes Think Progress, Pat Garofalo (22/3/12)
Laffer Curve Fun, with a side serving of nepotism Mark Wadsworth blog (22/3/12)
Budget 2012: are we really all in this together? Guardian, Polly Curtis (21/3/12)
Did the 50p tax rate really raise less than £1 billion in 2010/11? Touch Stone, Howard Reed (22/3/12)
45p: Power beats evidence Stumbling and Mumbling, Chris Dillow (22/3/12)
Reports, documents and presentations
Economic and fiscal outlook – March 2012 OBR
Budget 2012 HM Treasury (21/3/12)
Budget 2012 IFS (March 2012)
The Exchequer effect of the 50 per cent additional rate of income tax HMRC (March 2012)
Can More Revenue be Raised by Increasing Income Tax Rates for the Very Rich? IFS, Mike Brewer and James Browne (2009)
The 50p income tax rate IFS, James Browne (March 2012)
- What are the arguments for and against reducing the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45%? Do the same arguments apply to a further reduction to 40%?
- According to the OBR, at what top tax rate is the top of the Laffer curve?
- Why are the OBR’s calculations subject to considerable possible error?
- Why might a fall in the top tax rate from 50% to 40% not exactly reverse all the effects of an earlier rise in the top tax rate from 40% to 50%? In other words, why may the effects not be symmetrical?
- Distinguish between the income and substitution effects of a change in income tax rates. Which is assumed to be larger by the OBR in the case of reducing the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45%? Explain.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delivered the annual Budget on 23 March. He was very keen to have a ‘Budget for growth’ given the pessimism of consumers (see Table 1, UK, line 3, in Business and Consumer Survey Results, February 2011) and the bad news on inflation (see 4.4% and rising?).
But what could he do? Despite being urged by the Labour opposition to stimulate aggregate demand by cutting the deficit more slowly, he ruled out this alternative. It would be perceived by markets, he argued, as a sign that he was ‘gong soft’ on the commitment to tackle the deficit.
If stimulating aggregate demand directly was out, the alternative was to use supply-side policy: to provide more favourable conditions for business by cutting ‘red tape’, providing tax incentives for investment, reducing regulations, simplifying tax, cutting corporation tax financed by tax increases elsewhere, creating 21 ‘enterprise zones’ and funding extra apprenticeships and work experience placements.
The links below give details of the measures and consider their likely effectiveness. Crucially, the Budget will be much more successful in encouraging investment if people think it will be successful. In other words, its success depends on how it affects people’s expectations. Will it help confidence to return – or will the impending tax increases and cuts on government expenditure only make people more pessimistic?
Budget: Chancellor George Osborne opens speech BBC News (23/3/11)
Budget: Osborne wants to ‘simplify taxes’ BBC News (23/3/11)
Budget: Osborne lowers corporation tax BBC News (23/3/11)
Budget: BBC Economics editor Stephanie Flanders BBC News (23/3/11)
Budget: BBC business editor Robert Peston BBC News (23/3/11)
Enterprise Zones on the way back Channel 4 News, Siobhan Kennedy (22/3/11)
Osborne’s Budget ‘to fuel growth’ BBC News (23/3/11)
A budget for big business BBC News blogs, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (23/3/11)
Budget 2011: tax grab is the real story Guardian, Patrick Collinson (23/3/11)
Budget 2011 – full details Independent (23/3/11)
Osborne shakes up corporation tax Financial Times, Vanessa Houlder (23/3/11)
Osborne unveils ‘Budget for growth’ Financial Times, Daniel Pimlott and Chris Giles (23/3/11)
Budget 2011: Guardian columnists’ verdict Guardian, Jackie Ashley, Martin Kettle, George Monbiot, Julian Glover (23/3/11)
Budget 2011: a million low-paid people escape tax but fiscal drag catches others The Telegraph, Ian Cowie (23/3/11)
Budget 2011: some good news and lots of micro-management The Telegraph, Janet Daley (23/3/11)
Micro trumps macro BBC News Blogs: Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (23/3/11)
George Osborne, growing giant of the Tory party, launches ‘slow burn’ Budget Guardian, Nicholas Watt (23/3/11)
2011 Budget, HM Treasury (23/3/11)
Budget 2011 press notice, HM Treasury (23/3/11)
2011 Budget documents, HM Treasury (23/3/11)
- What supply-side policies were included in the Budget?
- What will be the impact of the Budget measures on aggregate demand?
- What are the major factors that are likely to influence the rate of economic growth over the coming months?
- What would have been the advantages and disadvantages of a more expansionary (or less contractionary) Budget?
- What will be the effects of the Budget measures on the distribution of income (after taxes and benefits)?
In March 2009, the Bank of England’s base rate was slashed to 0.5% in a bid to boost aggregate demand and stimulate the UK economy. Since then it has remained at the same level. Interest rates are used by the Bank of England, which aims to keep inflation at the 2% target within a 1% gap either side. However, inflation has been above 3% for some 15 months and the latest figures for February 2011 show that inflation is rising. In January, it was 4%, but data for February calculates an inflation rate of 4.4% – significantly above the Bank of England’s target rate of 2% and above the forecast rate for the month.
One of the causes of such high inflation is the price of fuel, food and clothing. No-one can have failed to notice that petrol prices are higher than ever and this is one of the factors contributing to an increase in the level of prices throughout the economy. Clothing and footwear costs, which rose by 3.6% after the January sales have also contributed to this rising figure and will put increasing pressure on the MPC to raise interest rates in the not so distant future.
In the February 2011 meeting of the Monetary Policy Committee, interest rates were kept at 0.5%, despite markets pricing the chance of a rate rise at 20%. The negative growth experienced in the final quarter of 2010 is likely to have influenced this decision, but will the inflation data we’re now seeing influence the next meeting of the MPC. This undoubtedly puts pressure on the central bank to increase interest rates to try to get inflation back on target. The cost? It could put the recovery in jeopardy and create the possibility of a double-dip recession. There is a conflict here and whatever happens to interest rates, some groups will say it’s the wrong decision. As David Kern said:
“The MPC must be careful before it takes action that may threaten the fragile recovery, particularly in the face of a tough austerity plan.”
Perhaps the Budget will provide us with some more information about how the government intends to cut the hole in public finances, ensure that the economy does not fall back into recession and keep inflation under control.
UK inflation revives talk of early interest rate rise Reuters, David Milliken and Christina Fincher (22/3/11)
How to inflation-proof your savings Telegraph, Emma Simon (22/3/11)
UK inflation rate rises to 4.4% in February BBC News (22/3/11)
Interest rates: What the economists say Guardian (10/2/11)
Q&A: Impact of rising inflation Guardian, Phillip Inman (22/3/11)
Inflation soars to over double target rate Sky News, Hazel Baker (22/3/11)
Inflation and public borrowing add to budget 2011 headaches Guardian, Larry Elliott (22/3/11)
Inflation cutting savers’ options BBC News, Kevin Peachey (22/3/11)
Inflation: What the economists say Guardian (22/3/11)
- Is inflation likely to continue going up? What might stop the rise?
- Why are interest rates such an important tool of monetary policy?
- What is the relationship between interest rates and inflation?
- What are the costs of high inflation? Does anyone benefit?
- Who would gain and who would lose if interest rates are increased in the next MPC meeting?
- Which factors have contributed towards rising inflation in the UK? Is it cost-push or demand-pull inflation?
- Why does this pose a dilemma for the government in terms of public finances and the recession?