Tag: Office for Budget Responsibility

In various blogs, we’ve looked at the UK’s low productivity growth, both relative to other countries and relative to the pre-1998 financial crisis (see, for example, The UK productivity puzzle and Productivity should we be optimistic?). Productivity is what drives long-term economic growth as it determines potential GDP. If long-term growth is seen as desirable, then a fall in productivity represents a serious economic problem.

Recent data suggest that the problem, if anything, is worse than previously thought and does not seem to be getting better. Productivity is now some 21% below what it would have been had productivity growth continued at the rate experienced in the years before the financial crisis (see second chart below).

In its latest productivity statistics, the ONS reports that labour productivity (in terms of output per hour worked) fell by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2017. This follows a fall of 0.5% in quarter 1. Over the whole year to 2017 Q2, productivity fell by 0.3%.

Most other major developed countries have much higher productivity than the UK. In 2016, Italy’s productivity was 9.9% higher than the UK’s; the USA’s was 27.9%, France’s was 28.7% and Germany’s was 34.5% higher. What is more, their productivity has grown faster (see chart).

But what of the future? The Office for Budget responsibility publishes forecasts for productivity growth, but has consistently overestimated it. After predicting several times in the past that UK productivity growth would rise towards its pre-financial crisis trend of around 2% per year, in its October 2017 Forecast evaluation Report it recognises that this was too optimisitic and revises downwards its forecasts for productivity growth for 2017 and beyond.

As the period of historically weak productivity growth lengthens, it seems less plausible to assume that potential and actual productivity growth will recover over the medium term to the extent assumed in our most recent forecasts. Over the past five years, growth in output per hour has averaged 0.2 per cent. This looks set to be a better guide to productivity growth in 2017 than our March forecast of 1.6 per cent.

Looking further ahead, it no longer seems central to assume that productivity growth will recover to the 1.8 per cent we assumed in March 2017 within five years.

But why has productivity growth not returned to pre-crisis levels? There are five possible explanations.

The first is that there has been labour hoarding. But with companies hiring more workers, this is unlikely still to be true for most employers.

The second is that very low interest rates have allowed some low-productivity companies to survive, which might otherwise have been driven out of business.

The third is a reluctance of banks to lend for investment. After the financial crisis this was driven by the need for them to repair their balance sheets. Today, it may simply be greater risk aversion than before the financial crisis, especially with the uncertainties surrounding Brexit.

The fourth is a fall in firms’ desire to invest. Although investment has recovered somewhat from the years directly following the financial crisis, it is still lower than might be expected in an economy that is no longer is recession. Indeed, there has been a much slower investment recovery than occurred after previous recessions.

The fifth is greater flexibility in the labour market, which has subdued wages and has allowed firms to respond to higher demand by taking on more relatively low-productivity workers rather than having to invest in human capital or technology.

Whatever the explanation, the solution is for more investment in both technology and in physical and human capital, whether by the private or the public sector. The question is how to stimulate such investment.

Articles

UK productivity lagging well behind G7 peers – ONS Financial Times, Katie Martin (6/10/17)
UK productivity sees further fall BBC News (6/10/17)
UK resigned to endless productivity gloom The Telegraph, Tim Wallace (10/10/17)
UK productivity estimates must be ‘significantly’ lowered, admits OBR The Guardian, Richard Partington and Phillip Inman (10/10/17)
UK productivity growth to remain sluggish, says OBR BBC News (10/10/17)
Official Treasury forecaster slashes UK productivity growth forecast, signalling hole in public finances for November Budget Independent, Ben Chu (10/10/17)
The Guardian view on Britain’s productive forces: they are not working The Guardian, Editorial (10/10/17)
Mind the productivity gap: the story behind sluggish earnings The Telegraph, Anna Isaac (26/10/17)

Data and statistical analysis

Labour productivity: April to June 2017 ONS Statistical Bulletin (6/10/17)
International comparisons of productivity ONS Dataset (6/10/17)
Forecast evaluation report OBR (October 2017)

Questions

  1. Explain the relationship between labour productivity and potential GDP.
  2. What is the relationship between actual growth in GDP and labour productivity?
  3. Why does the UK lag France and Germany more in output per hour than in output per worker, but the USA more in output per worker than in output per hour?
  4. Is there anything about the UK system of financing investment that results in lower investment than in other developed countries?
  5. Why are firms reluctant to invest?
  6. In what ways could public investment increase productivity?
  7. What measures would you recommend to encourage greater investment and why?
  8. How do expectations affect the growth in labour productivity?

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.

Articles

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)

Questions

  1. Explain the fiscal mandate of the Conservative government.
  2. Does sticking to targets for public-sector deficits and debt necessarily involve dampening aggregate demand as an election approaches? Explain.
  3. For what reasons may the Chancellor not hit his target of a public-sector surplus by 2019–20?
  4. Compare the advantages and disadvantages of a rules-based fiscal policy and one based on discretion.

In the second part of this blog, we look at an interview with the Guardian given by Robert Chote, Chair of the UK’s Office of Budget Responsibility. Like Mervyn King’s, that we looked at in Part 1, Robert Chote’s predictions are also gloomy.

In particular, he argues that if Greece leaves the euro, the effects on the UK economy could be significant, not just in the short term, but in the long term too.

The concern is that you end up with an outcome in the eurozone that creates the same sort of structural difficulties in the financial system and in the economy that we saw in the past recession, and that that has consequences both for hitting economic activity in the economy, but also its underlying potential. And it’s the latter which has particular difficulties for the fiscal position, because it means not just that the economy weakens and then strengthens again – ie, it goes into a hole and comes out – but that you go down and you never quite get back up to where you started. And that has more lingering, long-term consequences for the public finances.

The interview looked not just at the effects of the current crisis in the eurozone on the eurozone, British and world economies, but also at a number of other issues, including: the reliability of forecasts and those of the OBR in particular; relations between the OBR and the Treasury; allowing the OBR to cost opposition policies; the economic effect of cutting the 50p top rate of income tax; the sustainability of public-sector pensions; and tax increases or spending cuts in the long term.

In Part 3 we look at attempts by the G8 countries to find a solution to the mounting crisis.

Articles
Robert Chote interview: ‘I would not say in the past there’s been rigging’ Guardian, Andrew Sparrow (18/5/12)
UK ‘may never fully recover’ if Greece exits euro Guardian, Andrew Sparrow, Helena Smith and Larry Elliott (18/5/12)
British economy may ‘never quite recover’ from a severe Euro collapse The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (18/5/12)

OBR report
Economic and fiscal outlook Office for Budget Responsibility (March 2012)

Questions

  1. Why is it very difficult to forecast the effects of a Greek withdrawal from the euro?
  2. Why may Greek withdrawal have an effect on long-term potential output in the UK and the rest of Europe?
  3. Why are economic forecasts in general so unreliable? Does this mean that we should abandon economic forecasting?
  4. Why are public finances “likely to come under pressure over the longer term”?
  5. Why might the cut in the top rate of income tax from 50% to 45% have little impact on economic growth? Distinguish between income and substitution effects of the tax cut.

A crucial determinant of the economy’s short-term prospects is the appetite of households for spending. This is because household spending makes up roughly two-thirds of the total demand for firms’ goods and services or two-thirds of what economists refer to as aggregate demand. So what are the latest forecasts for consumer spending? We briefly consider the forecasts of the Office for Budget Responsibility for consumer spending and, in doing so, update an earlier bog Gloomy prospects for spending in 2012?

In its March 2012 Economic and Fiscal Outlook the Office for Budget Responsibility presents it forecasts for economic growth and household spending. The following table summarises these forecasts.

OBR Forecasts (annual real percentage change)

2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
GDP 0.8 2.0 2.7 3.0 3.0
Consumption 0.5 1.3 2.3 3.0 3.0
Disposable income –0.2   0.5 1.9 2.4 2.5

Source: Economic and Fiscal Outlook (Table 3.6) (Office for Budget Responsibility)

The OBR are forecasting that household spending will increase in real terms in 2012 by 0.5 per cent and by a further 1.3 per cent in 2013. This is on the back of a fall in real consumption in 2011 of 1.2 per cent. Therefore, the rebound in consumer spending is predicted to be only fairly modest. The long-term average annual real increase in household spending is around 2½ per cent.

The drag on consumer spending growth remains the weakness of growth in real disposable income. The post-tax income of the household sector fell in real terms by 1.2 per cent in 2011 and is expected to fall by a further 0.2 per cent in 2012. It is not until 2015 that growth in real disposable income returns to its long-term average which, unsurprisingly, is roughly the same as that of household sector spending.

As we noted in our earlier blog, the OBR’s short-term figures on spending growth critically depend on the ability of households to absorb the negative shocks to their real income. Empirical evidence tends to show that household spending growth is less variable than that in income and that households try and smooth, if they can, their spending. Therefore, the marginal propensity of households to consume out of changes in their income is below 1 in the short-run. This is consistent with the idea that households are consumption-smoothers disliking excessively volatile spending patterns.

The actual figures for consumption and income growth in 2011 help to show that consumption-smoothing cannot be taken for granted. In 2011, the fall in consumption exactly matched that in income. An important impediment to consumption-smoothing in recent times has been the impact of the financial crisis on bank lending. Banks have become more cautious in their lending and so households have been less able to borrow to support their spending in the face of falling real incomes. Another impediment to consumption-smoothing is likely to be the continuing unease amongst households to borrow (assuming they can) or to draw too heavily on their savings. In uncertain times, households may feel the need for a larger buffer stock of wealth to act as a security blanket.

In short, the latest OBR figures suggest that the growth in consumption in the medium-term will remain relatively weak. Retailers are likely to ‘feel the pinch’ for some time to come.

Articles
OBR raises forecast for economic growth Financial Times, Chris Giles (19/03/12)
Threat of recession receding but economy still at risk, says OBR Guardian, Katie Allen (21/3/12)
Punch Tavern sees profits slump 19pc Telegraph, Natalie Thomas (12/4/12)
U.K. Consumer spending slows as fuel prices climb, Times says Bloomberg, Agnieszka Troszkiewicz (7/4/12) )
Uk retail sales warmed by sunny weather in March BBC News (11/4/12)
Budget 2012: George Osborne raises UK growth forecast BBC News (21/4/12)

Data
Quarterly National Accounts, time series dataset Q4 2011 Office for National Statistics (see consumption series ABJR and HAYO in Table C2; disposable income series NRJR in Table J2 and GDP series ABMI in Table A2).

Questions

  1. Compare the consumption forecasts produced by the Office for Budget Responsibility in March 2012 with those it produced in November 2011. To see the earlier forecasts go to Gloomy prospects for spending in 2012?
  2. What do you understand by a consumption function? What variables would you include in such a function?
  3. Using the figures in the table in the text above, calculate ‘rough’ estimates of the income elasticity of consumption for each year. Why are these estimates only ‘rough’ approximations of the income elasticity of consumer spending?
  4. Draw up a list of factors that are likely to affect the strength of consumer spending in 2012. Explain how similar or different these factors are likely to have been to those that may affect spending during periods of strong economic growth.
  5. Explain what you understand by the term consumption-smoothing. Explore how households can smooth their spending and the factors that are likely to both help and prevent them from doing so.
  6. What do you understand by the net worth of households? Try drawing up a list of factors that could affect the net worth of households and then analyse how they might affect consumer spending.

A key determinant of our economy’s rate of growth over the year ahead is likely to be the behaviour of households and, in particular, the rate of growth in consumer (or household) spending. In other words, your appetite for spending will help to determine how quickly the economy grows. The importance of household spending for the economy is straightforward to understand given that it accounts for roughly two-thirds of the total demand for firms’ goods and services, i.e. two-thirds of aggregate demand. In its November 2011 Economic and Fiscal Outlook the Office for Budget Responsibility presents it forecasts for economic growth and household spending. The following table summarises these forecasts.

OBR Forecasts (annual real percentage change)

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
GDP 0.9 0.7 2.1 2.7 3.0 3.0
Consumption –1.1 0.2 1.2 2.2 2.7 2.9
Disposable income –2.3 –0.3 0.9 2.0 2.5 2.5

Source: Economic and Fiscal Outlook (Table 3.6) (Office for Budget Responsibility)

The OBR are forecasting that household spending will fall in real terms in 2011 by 1.1 per cent and grow by only 0.2 per cent in 2012. This is not good news for retailers nor, of course, for the economy. The drag on consumer spending growth is largely attributed to expected falls in real disposable (after-tax) incomes in both 2011 and 2012. In 2011, the household sector’s real income is forecast to decline by 2.3 per cent and then by a further 0.3 per cent in 2012.

The OBR’s figures on spending growth critically depend on the ability of households to absorb the negative shock to their real income. Empirical evidence tends to show that household spending growth is less variable than that in income and that households try and smooth, if they can, their spending. This means that the marginal propensity of households to consume out of changes to their income is below 1 in the short-run. In fact, the shorter the period of time over which we analyse income and consumption changes the smaller the consumption responses become. This is consistent with the idea that households are consumption-smoothers disliking excessively volatile spending patterns. In other words, the size of our monthly shop will usually vary less than any changes in our real income.

Of course, consumption-smoothing cannot be taken for granted. Households need the means to be able to smooth their spending given volatile and, in the current context, declining real incomes. Some economic theorists point to the importance of the financial system in enabling households to smooth their spending. In effect, households move their resources across time so that their current spending is not constrained solely by the income available to them in the current time period. This could mean in the face of falling real income perhaps borrowing against future incomes (moving forward in time expected incomes) or drawing down past savings.

The ability of households to move future incomes forward to the present has probably been impaired by the financial crisis. Banks are inevitably less cautious in their lending and therefore households are unable to borrow as much and so consume large amounts of future income today. In other words, households are credit-constrained. Furthermore, it is likely that households are somewhat uneasy about borrowing in the current climate, certainly any substantial amounts. Uncertainty tends to increase the stock of net worth a household would like to hold. A household’s net worth is the value of its stock of physical assets (largely housing wealth) and financial assets (savings) less its financial liabilities (debt). If households feel the need for a larger buffer stock of wealth to act as a sort of security blanket, they will not rush to acquire more debt (even if they could) or to draw down their savings.

The impairment of the financial system and the need for a buffer stock are two impediments to households smoothing their spending. They tend to make consumption more sensitive to income changes and so with falling incomes make it more likely that consumption will fall too. There are other related concerns too about the ability and willingness of consumers to smooth spending. Uncertainty arising from the volatility of the financial markets imposes liquidity constraints because households become less sure about the value of those savings products linked to the performance of equity markets. Consequently, they become less certain about the money (liquidity) that could be raised by cashing-in such products and so are more cautious about spending. Similarly, the falls in house prices have reduced the ability of households to extract housing equity to support spending. Indeed, with fewer transactions in the housing market the household sector is extracting less housing equity because it has been quite common, at least in the past, for households to over-borrow when moving and use the excess money borrowed to fund spending.

In short, there are many reasons to be cautious about the prospects for household spending. The expected decline in real income again in 2012 will ‘hit’ consumer spending. The question is how big this ‘hit’ will be and crucially on the extent to which households will be able to absorb it and keep spending.

Articles
Household spending frozen says ONS report BBC News (29/11/11)
Families £13 a week worse off Telegraph (10/12/11)
Household spending power shrinks for 22nd month in a row Mirror, Clifton Manning (29/11/11)
Britons inject record £9 bn of housing equity in Q2 BBC News (30/11/11)
UK retail growth weakest since May, says BRC BBC News (6/12/11)

Data
Housing equity withdrawal (HEW) statistical releases Bank of England

Questions

  1. What do you understand by a consumption function? What variables would you include in such a function?
  2. Using the figures in the table in the text above, calculate ‘rough’ estimates of the income elasticity of consumption for each year. Why are these estimates only ‘rough’ approximations of the income elasticity of consumer spending?
  3. Draw up a list of factors that are likely to affect the strength of consumer spending in 2012. Explain how similar or different these factors are likely to have been to those that may affect spending during periods of strong economic growth.
  4. Explain what you understand by the term consumption-smoothing. Explore how households can smooth their spending and the factors that are likely to both help and prevent them from doing so.
  5. What do you understand by the net worth of housholds? Try drawing up a list of factors that could affect the net worth of households and then analyse how they might affect consumer spending.