One of the announcements in the recent UK Budget was the ending of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), including its revised form, PF2. PFI was introduced by the Conservative government in 1992. Subsequently, it was to become central to the Labour government’s ‘Third-way’ approach of using the private sector to deliver public projects and services.
PFI involves a public–private partnership (PPP). The private sector builds and/or runs public projects, such as new schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, student accommodation, and so on. The public sector, in the form of government departments, NHS foundation trusts, local authorities, etc., then pays the private sector company a rent for the infrastructure or pays the company to provide services. The benefit of PFI is that it allows private-sector capital to be used for new projects and thus reduces the need for government to borrow; the disadvantage is that it commits the public-sector body to payments over the long-term to the company involved.
As the chart shows, PFI became an important means of funding public service provision during the 2000s. In the 10-year period up to financial year 2007/08, more than 50 new projects were being signed each year.
As the number of projects grew and with them the long-term financial commitments of the public sector, so criticisms mounted. These included:
- Quality and cost. It was claimed that PFI projects were resulting in poorer quality of provision and that cost control was often poor, resulting in a higher burden for the taxpayer in the long term.
- Credit availability. PFI projects are typically dependent on the private partner using debt finance to acquire the necessary funds. Therefore, credit conditions affect the ability of PFI to fund the delivery of public services. With the credit crunch of 2008/9, many firms operating PFI projects found it difficult to raise finance.
- The financial health of the private partner. What happens if the private company runs into financial difficulties. In 2005, the engineering company Jarvis only just managed to avoid bankruptcy by securing refinancing on all 14 of its PFI deals.
Recognising these problems, in 2011 the government set up a review of PFI. The result was a revised form of PFI, known as ‘PF2’. PF2 projects involved tighter financial control, with the government acting as a minority co-investor; more robust tendering processes, with bidders required to develop a long-term financing solution, where bank debt does not form the majority of the financing of the project; the removal of cleaning, catering and other ‘soft services’.
Despite the government’s intention that PPPs remain an important plank of its funding of public services, the number of new PFI/PF2 projects has nonetheless declined sharply during the 2010s as the chart shows. Of the 715 PPP projects as of 31 March 2017, 631 had been signed before May 2010. Indeed, in 2016/17 only 1 new project was signed.
The collapse of Carillion
Concerns over PPPs remained despite the reforms under PF2. These were brought dramatically into focus with the collapse of Carillion plc (see the blog, Outsourcing, PFI and the demise of Carillion). Carillion was a British company focused on construction and facilities management (i.e. support services for organisations). It was a significant private-sector partner in PPP projects. By 2014 it had won 60 PPP projects in the UK and Canada, including hospitals, schools, university buildings, prisons, roads and railways.
However, Carillion had increasing burdens of debt, caused, in part, by various major acquisitions, including McAlpine in 2008. Events came to a head when, on 15 January 2018, an application was made to the High Court for a compulsory liquidation of the company.
A subsequent report for the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in light of the collapse of Carillion found that procurement procedures were fundamentally flawed. It found that contracts were awarded based on cost rather than quality. This meant that some contracts were not sustainable. Between 2016 and the collapse of Carillion the government had been forced to renegotiate more than £120m of contracts so that public services could continue.
The ending of PPPs?
On 18 January 2018, the National Audit Office published an assessment of PFI and PF2. The report stated that there were 716 PFI and PF2 projects at the time, either under construction or in operation, with a total capital value of £59.4 billion. In recent years, however, ‘the government’s use of the PFI and PF2 models had slowed significantly, reducing from, on average, 55 deals each year in the five years to 2007/8 to only one in 2016/17.’
At its conference in September 2018, the Labour shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said that, if elected, a Labour government would not award any new PFI/PF2 contracts. He claimed that PFI/PF2 contracts were set to cost the taxpayer £200bn over the coming decade. Labour policy would be to review all existing PFI/PF2 contracts and bring the bulk of them fully back into the public sector.
Then in the Budget of 29 October 2018, the Chancellor announced that no further PFI/PF2 projects would be awarded, although existing ones would continue.
I have never signed off a PFI contract as chancellor, and I can confirm today that I never will. I can announce that the government will abolish the use of PFI and PF2 for future projects.
We will honour existing contracts. But the days of the public sector being a pushover, must end. We will establish a centre of excellence to actively manage these contracts in the taxpayers’ interest, starting in the health sector.
But does this mean that there will be no more public-private partnerships, of which PFI is just one example? The answer is no. As the Chancellor stated:
And in financing public infrastructure, I remain committed to the use of public-private partnership where it delivers value for the taxpayer and genuinely transfers risk to the private sector.
But just what form future PPPs will take is unclear. Clearly, the government will want to get value for money, but that depends on the mechanisms used to ensure efficient and high-quality projects. What is more, there is still the danger that the companies involved could end up with unsustainable levels of debt if economic circumstances change and it will still involve a burden on the taxpayer for the future.
- Find out how PF2 differs from PFI and assess the extent to which it overcame the problems identified with PFI.
- The government is not bringing back existing PFI contracts into the public sector, whereas the Labour Party would do so – at least with some of them. Assess the arguments for and against bringing PFI contracts ‘in-house’.
- Find out why Carillion collapsed. To what extent was this due to its taking on PFI contracts?
- What were the main findings of the National Audit Office’s assessment of PFI and PF2?
- The government still supports the use of public-private partnerships (PPPs). What form could these take other than as PFI/PF2 contracts? Would the problems associated with PFI/PF2 also apply to PPPs in general?
According to Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, the slow growth in global productivity is acting as a brake on the growth in potential income and is thus holding back the growth in living standards. In a recent speech in Washington she said that:
Over the past decade, there have been sharp slowdowns in measured output per worker and total factor productivity – which can be seen as a measure of innovation. In advanced economies, for example, productivity growth has dropped to 0.3 per cent, down from a pre-crisis average of about 1 per cent. This trend has also affected many emerging and developing countries, including China.
We estimate that, if total factor productivity growth had followed its pre-crisis trend, overall GDP in advanced economies would be about 5 percent higher today. That would be the equivalent of adding another Japan – and more – to the global economy.
So why has productivity growth slowed to well below pre-crisis rates? One reason is an ageing working population, with older workers acquiring new skills less quickly. A second is the slowdown in world trade and, with it, the competitive pressure for firms to invest in the latest technologies.
A third is the continuing effect of the financial crisis, with many highly indebted firms forced to make deep cuts in investment and many others being cautious about innovating. The crisis has dampened risk taking – a key component of innovation.
What is clear, said Lagarde, is that more innovation is needed to restore productivity growth. But markets alone cannot achieve this, as the benefits of invention and innovation are, to some extent, public goods. They have considerable positive externalities.
She thus called on governments to give high priority to stimulating productivity growth and unleashing entrepreneurial energy. There are several things governments can do. These include market-orientated supply-side policies, such as removing unnecessary barriers to competition, driving forward international free trade and cutting red tape. They also include direct intervention through greater investment in education and training, infrastructure and public-sector R&D. They also include giving subsidies and/or tax relief for private-sector R&D.
Banks too have a role in chanelling finance away from low-productivity firms and towards ‘young and vibrant companies’.
It is important to recognise, she concluded, that innovation and structural change can lead to some people losing out, with job losses, low wages and social deprivation. Support should be given to such people through better education, retraining and employment incentives.
IMF chief warns slowing productivity risks living standards drop Reuters, David Lawder (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks social turmoil, IMF warns Financial Times, Shawn Donnan (3/4/17)
Global productivity slowdown risks creating instability, warns IMF The Guardian, Katie Allen (3/4/17)
The Guardian view on productivity: Britain must solve the puzzle The Guardian (9/4/17)
Reinvigorating Productivity Growth IMF Speeches, Christine Lagarde, Managing Director, IMF(3/4/17)
Gone with the Headwinds: Global Productivity IMF Staff Discussion Note, Gustavo Adler, Romain Duval, Davide Furceri, Sinem Kiliç Çelik, Ksenia Koloskova and Marcos Poplawski-Ribeiro (April 2017)
- What is the relationship between actual and potential economic growth?
- Distinguish between labour productivity and total factor productivity.
- Why has total factor productivity growth been considerably slower since the financial crisis than before?
- Is sustained productivity growth (a) a necessary and/or (b) a sufficient condition for a sustained growth in living standards?
- Give some examples of technological developments that could feed through into significant growth in productivity.
- What is the relationship between immigration and productivity growth?
- What policies would you advocate for increasing productivity? Explain why.
The government has launched its promised industrial strategy by publishing a Green Paper which details the measures the government plans to take. This represents a move away from a laissez-faire approach to business and a move towards greater intervention.
There are 10 elements or ‘pillars’ of the policy. These include investing in science and technology, skills training and infrastructure – energy, transport, digital and water. They also include support to businesses, developing local institutions and encouraging trade and inward investment.
The drivers of the policy are planned to be a mixture of financial support, government procurement, new structures or organisations and laws and regulations. Details will be fleshed out in the coming months as the policy is enacted.
Reactions to the announcement have been mixed. An industrial policy is generally seen as an important element for improving the supply side of the economy by improving productivity and encouraging capacity growth. However, much of the criticism of the policy is that it does not go far enough. The following articles assess the policy – both its design and likely success.
Theresa May’s long-awaited “industrial strategy” looks a bit thin The Economist (28/1/17)
Factbox: The 10 pillars of Britain’s Modern Industrial Strategy Reuters, William James (23/1/17)
Theresa May give details of action plan for British industry BBC News (23/1/17)
Industry plan is break with ‘laissez-faire’ approach of the past Sky News, Ian King (23/1/17)
Skills and infrastructure top priority in industrial strategy, say UK firms The Guardian, Graham Ruddick (21/1/17)
The Guardian view on industrial strategy: hot air but no liftoff The Guardian (23/1/17)
The industrial strategy acknowledges a fundamental truth about growth New Statesman, Michael Jacobs (23/1/17)
European bosses underwhelmed by UK industrial revival plan Reuters, Ludwig Burger (27/1/17)
Is the UK finally getting serious about industrial strategy? Economia, David Bailey (25/1/17)
Government policy documents
Building our Industrial Strategy: Our 10 pillars HM Government (23/1/17)
Building our Industrial Strategy: Green Paper HM Government (23/1/17)
- Distinguish between interventionist and market-orientated supply-side policy. In terms of this distinction, how would you categorise the UK government’s industrial strategy?
- How will the strategy address the UK’s productivity puzzle?
- Go through each of the 10 pillars and assess how they will help to address weaknesses in the UK economy.
- How can government ‘missions’ to address major social challenges help to drive innovation? (See New Statesman article above.)
- How may Brexit help or hinder the government’s industrial strategy?
- The Economist article describes the strategy as looking thin. Do you agree?
Many politicians throughout the world,
not just on the centre and left, are arguing for increased spending on infrastructure. This was one of the key proposals of Donald Trump during his election campaign. In his election manifesto he pledged to “Transform America’s crumbling infrastructure into a golden opportunity for accelerated economic growth and more rapid productivity gains”.
Increased spending on inffrastructure has both demand- and supply-side effects.
Unless matched by cuts elsewhere, such spending will increase aggregate demand and could have a high multiplier effect if most of the inputs are domestic. Also there could be accelerator effects as the projects may stimulate private investment.
On the supply side, well-targeted infrastructure spending can directly increase productivity and cut costs of logistics and communications.
The combination of the demand- and supply-side effects could increase both potential and actual output and reduce unemployment.
So, if infrastructure projects can have such beneficial effects, why are politicians often so reluctant to give them the go-ahead?
Part of the problem is one of timing. The costs occur in the short run. These include demolition, construction and disruption. The direct benefits occur in the longer term, once the project is complete. And for complex projects this may be many years hence. It is true that demand-side benefits start to occur once construction has begun, but these benefits are widely dispersed and not easy to identify directly with the project.
Then there is the problem of externalities. The external costs of projects may include environmental costs and costs to local residents. This can lead to protests, public hearings and the need for detailed cost–benefit analysis. This can delay or even prevent projects from occurring.
The external benefits are to non-users of the project, such as a new bridge or bypass reducing congestion for users of existing routes. These make the private construction of many projects unprofitable, except with public subsidies or with public–private partnerships. So there does need to be a macroeconomic policy that favours publicly-funded infrastructure projects.
One type of investment that is less disruptive and can have shorter-term benefits is maintenance investment. Maintenance expenditure can avoid much more costly rebuilding expenditure later on. But this is often the first type of expenditure to be cut when public-sector budgets as squeezed, whether at the local or national level.
The problem of lack of infrastructure investment is very much a political problem. The politicians who give the go-ahead to such projects, such as high-speed rail, come in for criticisms from those bearing the short-run costs but they are gone from office once the benefits start to occur. They get the criticism but not the praise.
Are big infrastructure projects castles in the air or bridges to nowhere? The Economist, Buttonwood’s notebook (16/1/17)
Trump’s plans to rebuild America are misguided and harmful. This is how we should do it. The Washington Post, Lawrence H. Summers (17/1/17)
- Identify the types of externality from (a) a new high-speed rail line, (b) new hospitals.
- How is discounting relevant to decisions about public-sector projects?
- Why are governments often unwilling to undertake (a) new infrastructure projects, (b) maintenance projects?
- Is a programme of infrastructure investment necessarily a Keynesian policy?
- What accelerator effects would you expect from infrastructure investment?
- Explain the difference between the ‘spill-out’ and ‘pull-in’ effects of different types of public investments in a specific location. Is it possible for a project to have both effects?
- What answer would you give to the teacher who asked the following question of US Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers? “The paint is chipping off the walls of this school, not off the walls at McDonald’s or the movie theatre. So why should the kids believe this society thinks their education is the most important thing?”
- What is the ‘bridge to nowhere’ problem? Why does it occur and what are the solutions to it?
- Why is the ‘castles in the air’ element of private projects during a boom an example of the fallacy of composition?
The Bank of England has responded to forecasts of a dramatic slowdown in the UK economy in the wake of the Brexit vote. On 4th August, it announced a substantial easing of monetary policy, but still left room for further easing later.
Its new measures are based on the forecasts in its latest 3-monthly Inflation Report. Compared with the May forecasts, the Report predicts that, even with the new measures, aggregate demand growth will slow dramatically. As a result, over the next two years cumulative GDP growth will be 2.5% lower than it would have been with a Remain vote and unemployment will rise from 4.9% to around 5.5%.
What is more, the slower growth in aggregate demand will impact on aggregate supply. As the Governor said in his opening remarks at the Inflation Report press conference:
“The weakness in demand will itself weigh on supply as a period of low investment restrains growth in the capital stock and productivity.
There could also be more direct implications for supply from the decision to leave the European Union. The UK’s trading relationships are likely to change, but precisely how will be unclear for some time. If companies are uncertain about the future impact of this on their businesses, they could delay decisions about building supply capacity or entering new markets.”
Three main measures were announced.
||A cut in Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25%. This is the first time Bank Rate has been changed since March 2009. The Bank hopes that banks will pass this on to customers in terms of lower borrowing rates.
||A new ‘Term Funding Scheme (TFS)’. “Compared to the old Funding for Lending Scheme, the TFS is a pure monetary policy instrument that is likely to be more stimulative pound-for-pound.” The scheme makes £100bn of central bank reserves available as loans to banks and building societies. These will be at ultra-low interest rates to enable banks to pass on the new lower Bank Rate to customers in all forms of lending. What is more, banks will be charged a penalty if they do not lend this money.
||An expansion of the quantitative easing programme beyond the previous £375 billion of gilt (government bond) purchases. This will consist of an extra £60bn of gilt purchases and the purchase of up to £10bn of UK corporate bonds.
The Bank recognises that there is a limit to what monetary policy can do and that there is also a role to play for fiscal policy. The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, is considering what fiscal measures can be taken, including spending on infrastructure projects. These are likely to have relative high multiplier effects and would also increase aggregate supply at the same time. But we will have to wait for the Autumn Statement to see what measures will be taken.
But despite the limits to monetary policy, there is more the Bank of England could do. It already recognises that there may have to be a further cut in Bank Rate, perhaps to 0.1% or even to 0% (the ECB has a 0% rate). There could also be additional quantitative easing or additional term funding to banks.
Some economists argue that the Bank should go further still and, in conjunction with the Treasury, provide new money directly to fund infrastructure spending or tax cuts, or even as cash handouts to households. This extra money provided to the government would not increase government borrowing.
We discussed the use of this version of ‘helicopter money’ in the blogs, A flawed model of monetary policy, Global warning and People’s quantitative easing. Some of the articles below also consider the potential for this type of monetary policy. In a letter to The Guardian 35 economists advocate:
A fiscal stimulus financed by central bank money creation [which] could be used to fund essential investment in infrastructure projects – boosting the incomes of businesses and households, and increasing the public sector’s productive assets in the process. Alternatively, the money could be used to fund either a tax cut or direct cash transfers to households, resulting in an immediate increase of household disposable incomes.
Webcasts and podcasts
Inflation Report Press Conference Bank of England, Mark Carney (4/8/16)
Bank spells out chance of further rate cut this year BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Ben Broadbent, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England (5/8/16)
Broadbent Ready to Back Another BOE Rate Cut Amid Slowdown Bloomberg, Chris Wyllie (5/8/16)
What’s Top of Mind? ‘Helicopter Money’ Goldman Sachs Macroeconomic Insights, Allison Nathan (April 2016)
Bank of England measures
Interest rate cut: What did the Bank of England announce today and how will it affect you? Independent, Ben Chu (5/8/16)
This is the Bank of England’s all-action response to Brexit The Guardian, Larry Elliott (4/8/16)
Bank of England unveils four-pronged stimulus package in bid to avoid Brexit recession The Telegraph, Szu Ping Chan (4/8/16)
Record-breaking Bank of England Financial Times, Robin Wigglesworth (4/8/16)
The Bank of England has delivered – now for a fiscal response Financial Times (4/8/16)
Bank of England Cuts Interest Rate to Historic Low, Citing Economic Pressures New York Times, Chad Bray (4/8/16)
Sledgehammer? This is more like the small tool to fix a fence The Telegraph, Andrew Sentance (5/8/16)
All eyes are on Hammond as Bank runs low on options The Telegraph, Tom Stevenson (6/8/16)
Bank of England’s stimulus package has bought the chancellor some time The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/8/16)
A post-Brexit economic policy reset for the UK is essential Guardian letters, 35 economists (3/8/16)
Cash handouts are best way to boost British growth, say economists The Guardian, Larry Elliott (4/8/16)
Helicopter money: if not now, when? Financial Times, Martin Sandbu (2/8/16)
The helicopters fly on for now, but one day they will crash The Telegraph, Tom Stevenson (23/7/16)
Is the concept of ‘helicopter money’ set for a resurgence? The Conversation, Phil Lewis (2/8/16)
Helicopter money talk takes flight as Bank of Japan runs out of runway Reuters, Stanley White (30/7/16)
Helicopters 101: your guide to monetary financing Deutsche Bank Research, George Saravelos, Daniel Brehon and Robin Winkler (15/4/16)
Helicopter money is back in the air The Guardian, Robert Skidelsky (22/9/16)
Bank of England publications
Inflation Report, August 2016 Bank of England (4/8/16)
Inflation Report Press Conference: Opening Remarks by the Governor Bank of England, Mark Carney (4/8/16)
Inflation Report Q&A Bank of England Press Conference (4/8/16)
Inflation Report, August 2016: Landing page Bank of England (4/8/16)
- Find out the details of the previous Funding for Lending (FLS) scheme. How does the new Term Funding Scheme (TFS) differ from it? Why does the Bank of England feel that TFS is likely to be more effective than FLS in expanding lending?
- What is the transmission mechanism between asset purchases and real aggregate demand?
- What factors determine the level of borrowing in the economy? How is cutting Bank Rate from 0.5% to 0.25% likely to affect borrowing?
- If the Bank of England’s latest forecast is for a significant reduction in economic growth from its previous forecast, why did the Bank not introduce stronger measures, such as larger asset purchases or a cut in Bank Rate to 0.1%?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of helicopter money in the current circumstances? If helicopter money were used, would it be better to use it for funding public-sector infrastructure projects or for cash handouts to households, either directly or in the form of tax cuts?
- How does the Bank of England’s measures of 4 August compare with those announced by the Japanese central bank on 29 July?
- What effects can changes in aggregate demand have on aggregate supply?
- 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’?