On the 14th May the IMF published its latest Fiscal Monitor. The key message coming out of this was the need for countries to reduce their public debt ratios, i.e. public debt relative to GDP. Specifically, the IMF is arguing that public debt ratios should be reduced to their ‘post-crisis levels’. In effect, this means countries need to undertake fiscal consolidation. The IMF recognises that the pace of fiscal consolidation should reflect underlying fiscal and macroeconomic conditions, but warns of the dangers of not doing so especially in those countries where the credibility of the current and medium-term fiscal position is weakest.
Underpinning the IMF’s argument for fiscal consolidation is their concern that higher public debt ratios necessitate higher interest rates in order to entice investors to purchase government debt. In those countries with weak fiscal credibility, a sizeable interest rate premium may be needed to entice investors to hold government debt over other types of investments. For instance, we have seen how the markets reacted to the perceived lack of fiscal credibility in Greece and how a series of measures, as discussed in Fixing the Euro: a long term solution or mere sticking plaster were needed to both restore normality to debt markets and to prevent contagion in markets for other country’s public debt.
The IMF argues that the impact of higher interest rates from high public debt-to-GDP ratios would be to reduce an economy’s potential growth. The mechanism by which this would happen would primarily be a reduction of labour productivity growth resulting from lower levels of investment and, hence, from slower growth in the country’s capital stock.
In short, the IMF is arguing that without credible fiscal consolidation plans, countries – particularly advanced economies – run a real risk of restricting their rate of economic growth over the longer-term. Of course, the challenge is to implement fiscal consolidation plans that protect short-term growth by cementing the current economic recovery but do not hinder longer-term growth. Now that is a real challenge!
Fiscal Monitor, May 14 2010 IMF
IMF Says Rising Public Debt Risk ‘Cannot Be Ignored’ Bloomberg Businessweek, Sandrine Rastello (14/5/10)
US faces one of the biggest crunches in the world – IMF Telegraph, Edmund Conway (14/5/10)
IMF says that developed countries must curb their deficits BBC News (14/5/10)
Outlook for rich economies worsening – IMF Eurasia Review (14/5/10)
Britain’s public debt falls under IMF focus Financial Times, Alan Beattie (15/5/10)
Advanced Economies Face Tougher, Not Impossible, Fiscal Adjustment MarketNews.com, Heather Scott (14/5/10)
A good squeeze The Economist (31/3/10)
IMF Data and Statistic Portal IMF
For macroeconomic data for EU countries and other OECD countries, such as the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and Korea, see:
AMECO online European Commission
- Evaluate the argument put forward by the IMF that fiscal consolidation is necessary to prevent harming long-term economic growth.
- What are the economic dangers of consolidating a country’s fiscal position too quickly?
- What do you understand by short-run and long-term economic growth?
- What do you understand by potential growth?
- What could a government do to increase the perceived credibility of its fiscal position?
’The steepest and longest recession of any developed country since World War II.’ This has been the case for Ireland, which has seen national income fall by 20% since 2007. Many countries across the globe have experienced pretty bad recessions, but what makes Ireland stand out is how it has been dealt with.
In the UK, the government has continued spending in a bid to stimulate the economy and to use Gordon Brown’s phrase from 2008, we have aimed to ‘spend our way out of recession’. Ireland, however, did not have that option. With too much borrowing, Ireland was unable to stimulate the economy and needed to cut its debts in order to maintain its credibility in the eurozone. Last year, significant cuts in government spending were accompanied by tax rises equal to 5% of GDP. Similar action is to be expected in the UK following the election, where popular benefits may have to be reduced, as transfer payments do account for the majority of government spending. Whoever is in government following the election will have some hard decisions to make and everyone will be affected. Read the article below and listen to the interview and think about what the UK can learn from Ireland.
Irish lessons for the UK (including interview) BBC Stephanomics (9/4/10)
- In the interview, Brian Lenihan said that the UK was expecting too much from the falling value of sterling. What was the UK expecting following significant depreciations in the value of sterling and why has that not happened?
- What is a deflationary spiral? Why has it caused Ireland’s public debt to rise so much?
- Why does Brian Lenihan argue that there are limits to how much taxes can be increased? What are diminishing returns to taxation?
- Would the UK be any better off had we joined the euro? What about other countries: would they have benefited had we joined the euro?
It’s not just the roads in the UK that were frozen, as the Bank of England unsurprisingly decided to keep interest rates frozen at 0.5%. Furthermore, many economists do not expect to see interest rates increase for some time. Roger Bootle has predicted that rates could stay low for up to 5 years and this will contribute to a continuing weak pound and spell further trouble for importers and their customers.
The Bank of England also left its money-creation programme of ‘quantitative easing’ unchanged, but next month it will have to decide whether to extend quantitative easing beyond the limits of £200 billion that it set back in November.
Whilst we are supposedly beginning our economic recovery – with 2009 quarter 4 figures showing the first rise in output since the first quarter of 2008 – its strength remains questionable. Indeed, the rise in output in the last three months of 2009 was a mere 0.1%. So how important are interest rates in helping to sustain the recovery? Can they really pull us out of the recession by remaining at just 0.5%? Read the articles below which look at freezing interest rates and quantitative easing.
FTSE unaffected by interest rate decision In the News (7/1/10)
Freeze on UK interest rates BBC News (7/1/10)
Bank of England may raise interest rates as soon as March, leading economist predicts Telegraph (7/1/10)
Interest rates and quantitative easing on hold Guardian, Larry Elliott (7/1/10)
Bank of England extends quantitative easing by £25bn – but is it enough? Guardian, Larry Elliott (5/11/10)
Questions for QE BBC News blogs, Stephanomics, Stephanie Flanders (7/1/10)
Interest rates could stay low for 5 years, says Bootle BBC News (7/1/10)
- How do low interest rates contribute to a weak pound? How does this affect exporters and importers?
- What is quantitative easing? Should the QE programme be extended? What are the arguments for and against this in terms of economic recovery and public debt?
- How much of an impact do you think the recession will have on government policy over the next few months?
- Explain the transmission mechanisms by which changes in interest rates affect the goods market.
- If the Bank of England were not independent, what do you think would be happening to interest rates?
Well no-one can say that Gordon Brown has had an easy ride: the war in Iraq, MPs’ expenses, flooding, strikes, unemployment, and of course a recession. Will the banking crisis and its knock-on effects prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back? Only time will tell.
The UK economy will be voting within the next few months and the elected party will play a crucial role in our economic recovery. Public debt reached £829.7 billion at the end of October (59.2% of GDP) and with falling tax revenue and rising government spending, it could get considerably higher. “State borrowing grew by £16.1 billion last month (August) – almost twice the entire budget for the 2012 Olympics.”
The outcome of the election will not only play a role in determining how the UK fares over the next few years in terms of our economic recovery, but it will also indicate the likely direction that policy will take towards areas such as education, healthcare, poverty, pensions, etc. The housing market is also likely to be significantly affected and not just by the election. With the end of the stamp duty holiday approaching, demand for housing may begin to fall in the new year, which could spell a fall in house prices.
No matter what happens, it will be interesting to see the direction of government policy over the next few years, given the spending cuts we are likely to experience.
Public debt hits £800 billion – the highest on record Times Online, Patrick Hosking (19/9/09)
Labour polls fuel talk of early election date Mirror News, James Lyons (14/12/09)
Pre-election politics dictate the Bank of England’s economic policy The Independent, Stephen King (14/12/09)
David Cameron and Labour ready for ‘snap election’ BBC News (13/12/09)
So who said what to whom? The truth about the cuts debate Independent, Steve Richards (15/12/09)
Is UK government debt really that high? BBC News, Richard Anderson (22/12/09)
For data on public-sector finances, see:
Public Sector National Statistics Office for National Statistics
For a lighthearted look at the relationship between elections and the economy (in the context of the Philippines), see:
Election and other economic boosters Manilla Bulletin Publishing Corporation, Fred Lobo (14/12/09)
- How are economics and politics related? Think about how the up-coming election is likely to affect government policy and why.
- What are the main economic policies proposed by the Labour government? How do these aim to help the UK economy recover?
- What are the main economic policies proposed by the Conservative government? Will these policies be any more effective than Labour’s?
- The Conservative party is ahead in the polls at the moment: why do you think this is? To what extent has Labour’s popularity been affected by the way the government has dealt with the banking crisis?
The pound is regarded as an international currency. However, the financial crisis has caused the value of the pound to fall, reaching a four-month low against the euro in September. This recent weakening of sterling is partly the result of worries that the Lloyds Banking Group will find it difficult to meet the ‘strict criteria to leave the government’s insurance scheme for toxic banking assets’ set for it by the Financial Services Authority.
However, one of the main reasons relates to recently published figures showing UK debt (see for data). The UK’s public-sector net borrowing has now reached £16.1bn and the government’s overall debt now stands at £804.8bn: 57.5% of GDP. This represents an increase of £172bn in the past year. Over the longer term, this is unsustainable. The government could find it increasingly difficult to service this debt. This would mean that higher interest rates would have to be offered to attract people to lend to the government (e.g. through bonds and bills), but this, in turn, would further increase the cost of servicing the debt. Worries about the potential unsustainability of UK govenrment debt have weakened the pound.
But isn’t a lower exchange rate a good thing in times of recession as it gives UK-based companies a competitive advantage over companies abroad? The following articles consider UK debt and the exchange rate.
Pound plumbs five-month euro low BBC News (21/9/09)
Market data Telegraph (22/9/09)
Pound slides back against dollar and euro Guardian (21/9/09)
Pound drops as UK stocks fall for first time in seven days Bloomberg (21/9/09)
Public sector borrowing soaring BBC News (18/9/09)
Govt spending cuts ‘could help pound’ Just the Flight (21/9/09)
Pound dips to four month euro low BBC News (18/9/09)
Weak pound hits eurozone holidaymakers Compare and save (21/9/09)
- What is the relationship between public debt and the value of the pound? How do interest rates play a part?
- What is quantitative easing and has it been effective? How does it affect the exchange rate?
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a freely floating exchange rate relative to a fixed exchange rate?
- If the UK had joined the euro, do you think the country would have fared better during the recession? Consider public debt levels: would they have been restricted? What would have happened to interest rates? What would have happened to the rate of recovery