In an attempt to prevent recession following the financial crisis of 2007–8, many countries adopted both expansionary monetary policy and expansionary fiscal policy – and with some success. It is likely that the recession would have been much deeper without such policies
But with growing public-sector deficits caused by the higher government expenditure and sluggish growth in tax receipts, many governments soon abandoned expansionary fiscal policy and relied on a mix of loose monetary policy (with ultra low interest rates and quantitative easing) but tight fiscal policy in an attempt to claw down the deficits.
But such ‘austerity’ policies made it much harder for loose monetary policy to boost aggregate demand. The problem was made worse by the attempt of both banks and individuals to ‘repair’ their balance sheets. In other words banks became more cautious about lending, seeking to build up reserves; and many individuals sought to reduce their debts by cutting down on spending. Both consumer spending and investment were slow to grow.
And yet government and central banks, despite the arguments of Keynesians, were reluctant to abandon their reliance solely on monetary policy as a means of boosting aggregate demand. But gradually, influential international institutions, such as the IMF (see also) and World Bank, have been arguing for an easing of austerity fiscal policies.
The latest international institution to take a distinctly more Keynesian stance has been the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In its November 2015 Economic Outlook it had advocated some use of public-sector investment (see What to do about slowing global growth?. But in its Interim Economic Outlook of February 2016, it goes much further. It argues that urgent action is needed to boost economic growth and that this should include co-ordinated fiscal policy. In introducing the report, Catherine L Mann, the OECD’s Chief Economist stated that:
“Across the board there are lower interest rates, except for the United States. It allows the authorities to undertake a fiscal action at very very low cost. So we did an exercise of what this fiscal action might look like and how it can contribute to global growth, but also maintain fiscal sustainability, because this is an essential ingredient in the longer term as well.
So we did an experiment of a two-year increase in public investment of half a percentage point of GDP per annum undertaken by all OECD countries. This is an important feature: it’s everybody doing it together – it’s a collective action, because it’s global growth that is at risk here – our downgrades [in growth forecasts] were across the board – they were not just centred on a couple of countries.
So what is the effect on GDP of a collective fiscal action of a half a percentage point of GDP [increase] in public investment in [high] quality projects. In the United States, the euro area, Canada and the UK, who are all contributors to this exercise, the increase in GDP is greater than the half percentage point [increase] in public expenditure that was undertaken. Even if other countries don’t undertake any fiscal expansion, they still get substantial increases in their growth rates…
Debt to GDP in fact falls. This is because the GDP effect of quality fiscal stimulus is significant enough to raise GDP (the denominator in the debt to GDP ratio), so that the overall fiscal sustainability [debt to GDP] improves.”
What is being argued is that co-ordinated fiscal policy targeted on high quality infrastructure spending will have a multiplier effect on GDP. What is more, the faster growth in GDP should outstrip the growth in government expenditure, thereby allowing debt/GDP ratios to fall, not rise.
This is a traditional Keynesian approach to tackling sluggish growth, but accompanied by a call for structural reforms to reduce inefficiency and waste and improve the supply-side of the economy.
Osborne urged to spend more on infrastructure by OECD Independent, Ben Chu (18/2/16)
OECD blasts reform fatigue, downgrades growth and calls for more rate cuts Financial Review (Australia), Jacob Greber (18/2/16)
OECD calls for less austerity and more public investment The Guardian, Larry Elliott (18/2/15)
What’s holding back the world economy? The Guardian, Joseph Stiglitz and Hamid Rashid (8/2/16)
OECD calls for urgent action to combat flagging growth Financial Times, Emily Cadman (18/2/16)
Central bankers on the defensive as weird policy becomes even weirder The Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/2/16)
Keynes helped us through the crisis – but he’s still out of favour The Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/2/16)
G20 communique says monetary policy alone cannot bring balanced growth
Global Economic Outlook and Interim Economic Outlook OECD, Catherine L Mann (18/2/16)
Interim Economic Outlook OECD (18/2/16)
- Draw an AD/AS diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on GDP and prices.
- Draw a Keynesian 45° line diagram to illustrate the effect of a successful programme of public-sector infrastructure projects on actual and potential GDP.
- Why might an individual country benefit more from a co-ordinated expansionary fiscal policy of all OECD countries rather than being the only country to pursue such a policy?
- What determines the size of the multiplier effect of such policies?
- How might a new classical/neoliberal economist respond to the OECD’s recommendation?
- Why may monetary policy have ‘run out of steam’? Are there further monetary policy measures that could be adopted?
- Compare the relative effectiveness of increased government investment in infrastructure and tax cuts as alterative forms of expansionary fiscal policy.
- Should quantitative easing be directed at financing public-sector infrastructure projects? What are the benefits and problems of such a policy? (See the blog post People’s quantitative easing.)
Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, is proposing a number of radical economic policies. One that has attracted considerable attention is for a new form of QE, which has been dubbed ‘people’s quantitative easing’.
This would involve newly created money by the Bank of England being directly used to fund spending on large-scale housing, energy, transport and digital projects. Rather than the new money being used to purchase assets, as has been the case up to now, with the effect filtering only indirectly into aggregate demand and even more indirectly into aggregate supply, under the proposed scheme, both aggregate demand and aggregate supply would be directly boosted.
Although ‘conventional’ QE has worked to some extent, the effects have been uneven. Asset holders and those with large debts, such as mortgages, have made large gains from higher asset prices and lower interest rates. By contrast, savers in bank and building society accounts have seen the income from their savings decline dramatically. What is more, the indirect nature of the effects has meant time lags and uncertainty over the magnitude of the effects.
But despite the obvious attractiveness of the proposals, they have attracted considerable criticism. Some of these are from a political perspective, with commentators from the right arguing against an expansion of the state. Other criticisms focus on the operation and magnitude of the proposals
One is that it would change the relationship between the Bank of England and the government. If the Bank of England created money to fund government projects, that would reduce or even eliminate the independence of the Bank. Independence has generally been seen as desirable to prevent manipulation of the central bank by the government for short-term political gain. Those in favour of people’s QE argue that the money would be directed into a National Investment Bank, which would then make the investment allocation decisions. The central bank would still be independent in deciding the amount of QE.
This leads to the second criticism and that is about whether further QE is necessary at the current time. Critics argue that while QE of whatever type was justified when the economy was in recession and struggling to recover, now would be the wrong time for further stimulus. Indeed, it could be highly inflationary. The economy is currently expanding. If banks respond by increasing credit, the velocity of circulation of narrow money could rise and broad money supply grow, providing enough money to underpin a growing economy.
Many advocates of people’s QE accept this second point and see it as a contingency plan in case the economy fails to recover and further monetary stimulus is deemed necessary. If further QE is not felt necessary by the Bank of England, then the National Investment Bank could fund investment through conventional borrowing.
The following articles examine people’s QE and look at its merits and dangers. Given the proposal’s political context, several of the articles approach the issue from a very specific political perspective. Try to separate the economic analysis in the articles from their political bias.
Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal
The Economy in 2020 Jeremy Corbyn (22/7/15)
People’s quantitative easing — no magic Financial Times, Chris Giles (13/8/15)
How Green Infrastructure Quantitative Easing would work Tax Research UK, Richard Murphy (12/3/15)
What is QE for the people? Money Week, Simon Wilson (22/8/15)
QE or not QE? A slippery slope to breaking the Bank EconomicsUK.com, David Smith (23/8/15)
We don’t need “People’s QE”, basic economic literacy is enough Red Box, Jonathan Portes (13/8/15)
Is Jeremy Corbyn’s policy of ‘quantitative easing for people’ feasible? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (14/8/15)
Corbynomics: Quantitative Easing for People (PQE) Huffington Post, Adnan Al-Daini (7/9/15)
Corbyn’s “People’s QE” could actually be a decent idea FT Alphaville, Matthew C. Klein (6/8/15)
Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘People’s QE’ would force Britain into three-year battle with the EU The Telegraph, Peter Spence (15/8/15)
Would Corbyn’s ‘QE for people’ float or sink Britain? BBC News, Robert Peston (12/8/15)
Strategic Quantitative Easing – public money for public benefit New Economics Foundation blog, Josh Ryan-Collins (12/8/15)
People’s QE and Corbyn’s QE Mainly Macro blog, Simon Wren-Lewis
You can print money, so long as it’s not for the people The Guardian, Zoe Williams (4/10/15)
- What is meant by ‘helicopter money’? How does it differ from quantitative easing as practised up to now?
- Is people’s QE the same as helicopter money?
- Can people’s QE take place alongside an independent Bank of England?
- What is meant by the velocity of circulation of money? What happened to the velocity of circulation following the financial crisis?
- How does conventional QE feed through into aggregate demand?
- Under what circumstances would people’s QE be inflationary?
In his annual Mansion House speech to business leaders on 10 June 2015, George Osborne announced a new fiscal framework. This would require governments in ‘normal times’ to run a budget surplus. Details of the new framework would be spelt out in the extraordinary Budget, due on 8 July.
If by ‘normal times’ is meant years when the economy is growing, then this new fiscal rule would mean that in most years governments would be require to run a surplus. This would reduce general government debt.
And it would eventually reduce the debt from the forecast ratio of 89% of GDP for 2015 to the target of no more than 60% set for member states under the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. Currently, many countries are in breach of this target, although the Pact permits countries to have a ratio above 60% provided it is falling towards 60% at an acceptable rate. The chart shows in pink those countries that were in breach in 2014. They include the UK.
Sweden and Canada have similar rules to that proposed by George Osborne, and he sees them as having been more able to use expansionary fiscal policy in emergency times, such as in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007/8, without running excessive deficits.
Critics have argued, however, that running a surplus whenever there is economic growth would dampen recovery if growth is sluggish. This makes the rule very different from merely requiring that, over the course of the business cycle, there is a budget balance. Under that rule, years of deficit are counterbalanced by years of surplus, making fiscal policy neutral over the cycle. With a requirement for a surplus in most years, however, fiscal policy would have a net dampening effect over the cycle. The chancellor hopes that this would be countered by increased demand in the private sector and from exports.
The rule is even more different from the Coalition government’s previous ‘fiscal mandate‘, which was for a ‘a forward-looking target to achieve cyclically-adjusted current balance by the end of the rolling, five-year forecast period’. The current budget excludes investment expenditure on items such as transport infrastructure, hospitals and schools. The fiscal mandate was very similar to the former Labour government’s ‘Golden rule’, which was to achieve a current budget balance over the course of the cycle.
By excluding public-sector investment from the target, as was previously done, it can allow borrowing to continue for such investment, even when there is a substantial deficit. This, in turn, can help to increase aggregate supply by improving infrastructure and has less of a dampening effect on aggregate demand. A worry about the new rule is that it could lead to further erosion of public-sector investment, which can be seen as vital to long-term growth and development of the economy. Indeed, Sweden decided in March this year to abandon its surplus rule to allow government borrowing to fund investment.
The podcasts and articles below consider the implications of the new rule for both aggregate demand and aggregate supply and whether adherence to the rule will help to increase or decrease economic growth over the longer term.
Video and audio podcasts
George Osborne confirms budget surplus law Channel 4 News, Gary Gibbon (10/6/15)
Osborne To Push Through Budget Surplus Rules Sky News (10/6/15)
OECD On Osborne’s Fiscal Plans Sky News, Catherine Mann (10/6/15)
‘Outright fiscal madness’ Osborne’s Mansion House Speech RT UK on YouTube, Harry Fear (11/6/15)
A “straightjacket” [sic] on future government spending? BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston; Nigel Lawson (11/6/15)
Thursday’s business with Simon Jack BBC Today Programme, Gerard Lyons (12/6/15)
Osborne seeks to bind successors to budget surplus goal Reuters, David Milliken (10/6/15)
George Osborne to push ahead with budget surplus law The Telegraph, Peter Dominiczak (10/6/15)
Osborne Wants U.K. to Build Treasure Chest During Good Times Bloomberg, Svenja O’Donnell (10/6/15)
Questions over Osborne’s Victorian-era budget plans BBC News (10/6/15)
Years more spending cuts to come, says OBR BBC News (11/6/15)
Is Chancellor right to want surplus in normal times? BBC News, Robert Peston (10/6/15)
George Osborne Unveils New Budget Surplus Law, But Critics Warn It Means Needless Cuts Huffington Post, Paul Waugh (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s fiscal handcuffs are political, but he does have a point Independent, Hamish McRae (11/6/15)
Osborne’s budget surplus law follows UK tradition of moving goalposts Financial Times, Chris Giles (10/6/15)
George Osborne’s budget surplus rule is nonsense and it could haunt Britain for decades Business Insider, Malaysia, Mike Bird (10/6/15)
To cut a way out of recession we need growth, not austerity economics Herald Scotland, Iain Macwhirter (11/6/15)
George Osborne moves to peg public finances to Victorian values The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Frances Perraudin (10/6/15)
The Guardian view on George Osborne’s fiscal surplus law: the Micawber delusion The Guardian, Editorial (10/6/15)
Academics attack George Osborne budget surplus proposal The Guardian, Phillip Inman (12/6/15)
Osborne plan has no basis in economics Guardian letters, multiple signatories (12/6/15)
Is there an optimal debt-to-GDP ratio? Vox EU, Anis Chowdhury and Iyanatul Islam
No basis in economics Mainly Macro, Simon Wren-Lewis (16/6/15)
- Explain what is meant by a ‘cyclically adjusted current budget balance’.
- How does the speed with which the government reduces the public-sector debt affect aggregate demand and aggregate supply?
- What are the arguments for and against running a budget surplus: (a) when there is currently a large budget deficit; (b) when there is already a budget surplus? How do the arguments depend on the stage of the business cycle?
- Do you agree with the statement that ‘the biggest issue with the UK economy right now is not the government deficit’. If so, what bigger issues are there?
- How could public-sector debt as a proportion of GDP decline without the government running a budget surplus?
- How might the term ‘normal times’ be defined? How does the definition used by the Chancellor affect the rate at which the public-sector debt is reduced?
- How sustainable is the current level of public-sector debt? How does its sustainability relate to the interest rate on long-term government bonds?
- If there is a budget surplus, such that G – T is negative, what can we say about the balance betwen (I + X) and (S + M)? What good and adverse consequences could follow?
- Why do George Osborne’s plans for budget surpluses ‘risk a liquidity crisis that could also trigger banking problems, a fall in GDP, a crash, or all three’?
As we saw in the blog post The UK’s poor productivity record, the UK’s productivity, as measured by output per hour worked, has grown much slower than in other major developed countries since the financial crisis. In fact, output per hour is lower now than in 2008. In France and Germany it is around 3 per higher than in 2008; in Japan it is nearly 6% higher; in the USA it is over 8% higher; and in Ireland it is 12% higher.
The chart below shows international comparisons of labour productivity from 2000 to 2014. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
And it is not just labour productivity that has fallen in the UK. Total factor productivity of labour and capital combined has also fallen. This reflects the fall in business investment after the financial crisis and, more recently, meeting the demand for extra output by employing more labour rather than by investing in extra capital.
In his first major speech since the election, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, told the CBI that the government was intent on tackling the problem of low and stagnant productivity. This would require investment in infrastructure, such as high-speed rail, better roads, superfast broadband and a new runway in the south east. It would require investment in education, training and research; it would involve cutting red tape for business; it would require making it easier for both parents in a family to work by cutting the cost of childcare. The details of the government’s policies would be made clear in the soon-to-be published Productivity Plan.
But how much difference can the government make? Are there intractable problems that will prove virtually impossible to overcome? How much, indeed, can a government do, however much it would like to? The articles explore the issues.
Will George Osborne’s productivity plan help make Britain a world-beater? The Guardian, Larry Elliott (24/5/15)
UK productivity has stayed stubbornly low for years. Dare we hope for better? The Guardian (24/5/15)
Joseph Stiglitz: ‘GDP per capita in the UK is lower than it was before the crisis. That is not a success’ The Observer, Anthony Andrew (24/5/15)
Osborne says low productivity key economic challenge BBC News (20/5/15)
Solving the productivity puzzle BBC News, Duncan Weldon (20/4/15)
Osborne faces up to productivity challenge BBC News, Robert Peston (20/5/15)
Osborne makes priority of boosting UK productivity Financial Times, George Parker (20/5/15)
The Bank of England is living in cloud-cuckoo land on wages Independent, David Blanchflower (18/5/14)
Cameron’s Plan Hasn’t Cracked Productivity Slump Flagged by BOE Bloomberg, Jill Ward (14/5/15)
To solve Britain’s productivity puzzle, try asking the workers The Conversation, Stephen Wood (29/6/15)
Inflation Report: Chapter 3, Output and Supply Bank of England (May 2015)
- Define (a) labour productivity; (b) capital productivity; (c) total factor productivity.
- Why has the UK experienced lower productivity than other developed countries?
- Why may the UK’s lower unemployment than other countries in the post-recession period be the direct consequence of lower productivity growth?
- For what reasons might it be difficult for the government to achieve a significant increase in UK productivity?
- How might demand-side policy negatively impact on the supply-side policies that the government might adopt to increase productivity?
- How might the period up to and beyond the referendum in the UK on continuing EU membership impact on productivity?
- How might poor productivity be tackled?
The first link below is to an excellent article by Noriel Roubini, Professor of Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. Roubini was one of the few economists to predict the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession. In this article he looks at the current problem of substantial deficiency of demand: in other words, where actual output is well below potential output (a negative output gap). It is no wonder, he argues, that in these circumstances central banks around the world are using unconventional monetary policies, such as virtually zero interest rates and quantitative easing (QE).
He analyses the causes of deficiency of demand, citing banks having to repair their balance sheets, governments seeking to reduce their deficits, attempts by firms to cut costs, effects of previous investment in commodity production and rising inequality.
The second link is to an article about the prediction by the eminent fund manager, Crispin Odey, that central banks are running out of options and that the problem of over-supply will lead to a global slump and a stock market crash that will be ‘remembered in a hundred years’. Odey, like Roubini, successfully predicted the 2008 financial crisis. Today he argues that the looming ‘down cycle will cause a great deal of damage, precisely because it will happen despite the efforts of central banks to thwart it.’
I’m sorry to post this pessimistic blog and you can find other forecasters who argue that QE by the ECB will be just what is needed to stimulate economic growth in the eurozone and allow it to follow the USA and the UK into recovery. That’s the trouble with economic forecasting. Forecasts can vary enormously depending on assumptions about variables, such as future policy measures, consumer and business confidence, and political events that themselves are extremely hard to predict.
Will central banks continue to deploy QE if the global economy does falter? Will governments heed the advice of the IMF and others to ease up on deficit reduction and engage in a substantial programme of infrastructure investment? Who knows?
An Unconventional Truth Project Syndicate, Nouriel Roubini (1/2/15)
UK fund manager predicts stock market plunge during next recession The Guardian, Julia Kollewe (30/1/15)
- Explain each of the types of unconventional monetary policy identified by Roubini.
- How has a policy of deleveraging by banks affected the impact of quantitative easing on aggregate demand?
- Assume you predict that global economic growth will increase over the next two years. What reasons might you give for your prediction?
- Why have most commodity prices fallen in recent months? (In the second half of 2014, the IMF all-commodity price index fell by 28%.)
- What is likely to be the impact of falling commodity prices on global demand?
- Some neo-liberal economists had predicted that central bank policies ‘would lead to hyperinflation, the US dollar’s collapse, sky-high gold prices, and the eventual demise of fiat currencies at the hands of digital krypto-currency counterparts’. Why, according to Roubini, did the ‘root of their error lie in their confusion of cause and effect’?