Economists are famous for disagreeing – as, of course, are politicians. And there is a lot of disagreement around at the moment. George Osborne is determined to cut Britain’s large public-sector deficit, and cut it quickly. This, argues the Coalition government and many economists, is necessary to maintain the UK’s AAA sovereign credit rating. This, in turn, will allow interest rates to be kept down and the international confidence will encourage investment. In short, the cut in aggregate demand by government would be more than compensated by a rise in aggregate demand elsewhere in the economy, and especially from investment and exports. By contrast, not cutting the deficit rapidly would undermine confidence. This would make it more expensive to borrow and would discourage inward investment.
Not so, say the opposition and many other economists. A contractionary fiscal policy will achieve just that – an economic contraction. In other words, there is a real danger of a double-dip recession. Far from encouraging investment, it will do just the opposite. Consumers, fearing falling incomes and rising unemployment, will cut back on spending. Businesses, fearing a fall in sales, will cut back on investment. Economic pessimism, and hence caution, will feed on themselves.
So who are right? The first two blogs by Stephanie Flanders, the BBC’s Economics Editor, look at the arguments on both sides. The third attempts to sum up. The other articles continue the debate. For example, the link to The Economist contains several contributions from commentators on either side of the debate. See also the earlier posting on this site, The ‘paradox of cuts’.
The case for Mr Osborne’s austerity BBC News Blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (7/9/10)
The case against Mr Osborne’s austerity BBC News Blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (8/9/10)
Austerity plans: Where do you stand? BBC News Blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (10/9/10)
Are current deficit reduction plans likely to boost growth? The Economist debates, various invited guests
Debt and growth revisited Vox, Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff (11/8/10)
Leading article: Mr Osborne should prepare a Plan B Independent (13/9/10)
Shock fall in UK retail sales adds to fears of double-dip recession Guardian, Larry Elliott (16/9/10)
Chancellor accused of £100bn economic growth gamble by Compass Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/9/10)
Double-dip recession: bulls and bears diverge over future economic prospects Guardian, Phillip Inman (16/9/10)
Speech by Mervyn King to TUC Congress TUC (15/9/10)
Barber, Blanchflower and the fake debate on double dip The Spectator, Ed Howker (14/9/10)
Consumer confidence Nationwide
ICAEW / Grant Thornton UK Business Confidence Monitor (BCM) ICAEW
Business and Consumer Surveys Economic and Financial Affairs, European Commission
- Summarise the arguments for the Coalition government’s programme of rapidly reducing the public-sector deficit.
- Summarise the arguments against the Coalition government’s programme of rapidly reducing the public-sector deficit.
- What factors are likely to determine whether there will be a double-dip recession as a result of the austerity programme?
- Why is it very hard to predict the effects of the austerity programme?
- How effective is an expansionary monetary policy likely to be in the context of a tightening fiscal policy?
- How important are other countries’ macroeconomic policies in determining the success of George Osborne’s policies?
- How similar to or different from other recessions has the recent one been? What are the policy implications of these similarities/differences?
According to political business cycle theory, incoming governments tend to take harsh measures at first, when they can blame the cuts on the ‘mess they’ve inherited’ from their predecessors. And then two or three years later, as an election looms, they can start spending more and/or cutting taxes, hoping that the good will this creates will help them win the election.
So are we seeing the start of a new political business cycle with the start of the new Coalition government? The following two articles look at the issue.
Coalition will inflict cuts now and spend later to win a second term Guardian, Larry Elliott (17/5/10)
If you get all the bad news out at once, the only way left to go will be up. Or will it? Independent, Sean O’Grady (18/5/10)
- Explain what is meant by the ‘political business cycle’.
- Would the existence of a political dimension to the business cycle amplify or dampen the cycle, or could it do either depending on the circumstances? Explain.
- Does the existence of an independent central bank eliminate the political business cycle?
- Will the new Office for Budget Responsibility (see Nipping it in the Budd: Enhancing fiscal credibility?) help to eliminate the political business cycle? Explain your answer.
The incoming coalition government in the UK has been spelling out its fiscal policy. It is sticking to the Conservative pledge of cutting £6bn from government spending this fiscal year (6 April 2010 to 5 April 2011). It hopes to make most of these by ‘efficiency savings’ – in other words, providing the same level of service for less money. It has, however, said that it will take advice from the Treasury and the Bank of England as to whether the cuts need to be delayed if the economy weakens substantially.
But the Bank of England is forecasting a continuation of the recovery (see its latest Inflation Report below), even assuming no further quantitative easing beyond the £200bn of assets purchased by the Bank. The Governor, Mervyn King, feels that the economy can indeed bear the proposed £6bn cut in government spending and that this will also send an important signal to the market that the government is committed to reducing the deficit.
The new government has also said that it will honour the Liberal Democrat pledge to raise the personal tax free allowance on income tax to £10,000. It has also backtracked somewhat on the Conservative pledge not to raise national insurance. Only employers will be spared the rise; employees will have to pay it.
So has there been a major change in fiscal policy? Has the focus moved from one of maintaining aggregate demand in order to avoid falling back into recession to one of making a start on tackling the deficit straight away? Or is the change in emphasis more one of presentation than substance? The following webcasts looks at the new fiscal policy emerging from number 11 and at the latest forecasts for growth and inflation.
What kind of medicine is the economy going to be fed? BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (13/5/10)
Policy breakdown for Lib Dem-Conservative coalition BBC News, James Landale (12/5/10)
Savings cuts to ‘hit middle class families’ BBC News, Keith Doyle (15/5/10)
Inflation Report, May 2010 Bank of England (click on Watch Webcast) (12/5/10)
Documents and data
Coalition Agreement published (see here for text of agreement) Conservative Party (11/5/10)
Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition negotiations agreements Liberal Democrats (11/5/10)
Inflation Report, May 2010 (portal) Bank of England, see in particular:
Department by department, what the new Government plans to do Independent (13/5/10)
VAT rise looms as coalition deal adds estimated £10bn to debt Guardian, Katie Allen and Julia Kollewe (13/5/10)
Some initial reaction to the Tory / Lib Dem coalition agreement Institute for Fiscal Studies Press Release, Robert Chote and Mike Brewery (12/5/10)
Tax rises likely under coalition government, says Institute for Fiscal Studies Telegraph, Edmund Conway (13/5/10)
Give and take BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (12/5/10)
- What ground has been given by (a) the Conservatives; (b) the Liberal Democrats in terms of their proposed economic policies (see Looking at the manifestos for details of their proposed policies).
- What will be the implications of a £6bn cut in government spending on aggregate demand? What other determinants of aggregate demand need to be taken into account in order to assess the likely growth in GDP over the coming months?
- What are the distributional consequences of (a) a rise in the personal income tax allowance to £10,000; (b) a rise in VAT?
- Has there been a major change in fiscal policy?
With an election approaching, there is much debate about recovery and cuts and about the relationships between the two. Will rapid cuts stimulate confidence in the UK by business and bankers and thereby stimulate investment and recovery, or will they drive the economy back into recession? The debate is not just between politicians vying for your vote; economists too are debating the issue. Many are taking to letter writing.
In the February 2010 news blog, A clash of ideas – what to do about the deficit, we considered three letters written by economists (linked to again below). There has now been a fourth – and doubtless not the last. This latest letter, in the wake of the Budget and the debates about the speed of the cuts, takes a Keynesian line and looks at the sustainability of the recovery – including social and environmental sustainability. It is signed by 34 people, mainly economists.
Letter: Better routes to economic recovery Guardian (27/3/10)
Letter: UK economy cries out for credible rescue plan Sunday Times, 20 economists (14/2/10)
Letter: First priority must be to restore robust growth Financial Times, Lord Skidelsky and others (18/2/10)
Letter: Sharp shock now would be dangerous Financial Times, Lord Layard and others (18/2/10)
- Summarise the arguments for making rapid cuts in the deficit.
- Summarise the arguments for making gradual cuts in the deficit in line with the recovery in private-sector demand.
- Under what conditions would the current high deficit crowd out private expenditure?
- What do you understand by a ‘Green New Deal’? How realistic is such a New Deal and would there be any downsides?
- Is the disagreement between the economists the result of (a) different analysis, (b) different objectives or (c) different interpretation of forecasts of the robustness of the recovery and how markets are likely to respond to alternative policies? Or is it a combination of two of them or all three? Explain your answer.
- Why is the effect of the recession on the supply-side of the economy crucial in determining the sustainability of a demand-led recovery?